By the time of “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” (1853), acedia had lost the last of its religious reverberations and was now an offense against the economy. Right in the heart of robber-baron capitalism, the title character develops what proves to be terminal acedia. It is like one of those western tales where the desperado keeps making choices that only herd him closer to the one disagreeable finale. Bartleby just sits there in an office on Wall Street repeating, “I would prefer not to.” While his options go rapidly narrowing, his employer, a man of affairs and substance, is actually brought to question the assumptions of his own life by this miserable scrivener — this writer! — who, though among the lowest of the low in the bilges of capitalism, nevertheless refuses to go on interacting anymore with the daily order, thus bringing up the interesting question: who is more guilty of Sloth, a person who collaborates with the root of all evil, accepting things-as-they-are in return for a paycheck and a hassle-free life, or one who does nothing, finally, but persist in sorrow? “Bartleby” is the first great epic of modern Sloth, presently to be followed by work from the likes of Kafka, Hemingway, Proust, Sartre, Musil and others — take your own favorite list of writers after Melville and you’re bound sooner or later to run into a character bearing a sorrow recognizable as peculiarly of our own time.
“A Doubtful Character”
I find it difficult to believe in Father Christmas. If he is the jolly old gentleman he is always said to be, why doesn’t he behave as such? How is it that the presents go so often to the wrong people?
This is no personal complaint; I speak for the world. The rich people get the rich presents, and the poor people get the poor ones. That may not be the fault of Father Christmas; he may be under contract for a billion years to deliver all presents just as they are addressed; but how can he go on smiling? He must long to alter all that. There is Miss Priscilla A—— who gets five guineas worth of the best every year from Mr. Cyril B—— who hopes to be her heir. Mustn’t that make Father Christmas mad? Yet he goes down the chimney with it just the same. When his contract is over, and he has a free hand, he’ll arrange something about THAT, I’m sure. If he is the jolly old gentleman of the pictures his sense of humour must trouble him. He must be itching to have jokes with the parcels. “Only just this once,” he would plead. “Let me give Mrs. Brown the safety-razor, and Mr. Brown the night-dress case; I swear I won’t touch any of the others.” Of course that wouldn’t be a very subtle joke; but jolly old gentlemen with white beards aren’t very subtle in their humour. They lean to the broader effects—the practical joke and the pun. I can imagine Father Christmas making his annual pun on the word “reindeer,” and the eldest reindeer making a feeble attempt to smile. The younger ones wouldn’t so much as try. Yet he would make it so gaily that you would love him even if you couldn’t laugh. Continue reading “I find it difficult to believe in Father Christmas (A.A. Milne)”
A young lady, a girl of perhaps twenty, is sitting in a chair and reading a book. Or she has just been diligently reading, and now she is reflecting on what she has read. This often happens, that someone who is reading must pause, because all sorts of ideas having to do with the book keenly engage him. The reader is dreaming; perhaps she is comparing the subject matter of the book to her own experiences hitherto; she is thinking about the hero of the book, while she fancies herself almost its heroine.
Read the rest of Robert Walser’s microessay “Portrait of a Lady” (trans. by Lydia Davis) at The Offing. The painting–Portrait of a Lady—is by Karl Walser, Robert’s older brother.
“The Right to Take Oneself Off”
A person who loses heart and hope through a personal bereavement is like a grain of sand on the seashore complaining that the tide has washed a neighboring grain out of reach. He is worse, for the bereaved grain cannot help itself; it has to be a grain of sand and play the game of tide, win or lose; whereas he can quit—by watching his opportunity can “quit a winner.” For sometimes we do beat “the man who keeps the table”—never in the long run, but infrequently and out of small stakes. But this is no time to “cash in” and go, for you can not take your little winning with you. The time to quit is when you have lost a big stake, your fool hope of eventual success, your fortitude and your love of the game. If you stay in the game, which you are not compelled to do, take your losses in good temper and do not whine about them. They are hard to bear, but that is no reason why you should be.
But we are told with tiresome iteration that we are “put here” for some purpose (not disclosed) and have no right to retire until summoned—it may be by small-pox, it may be by the bludgeon of a blackguard, it may be by the kick of a cow; the “summoning” Power (said to be the same as the “putting” Power) has not a nice taste in the choice of messengers. That “argument” is not worth attention, for it is unsupported by either evidence or anything remotely resembling evidence. “Put here.” Indeed! And by the keeper of the table who “runs” the “skin game.” We were put here by our parents—that is all anybody knows about it; and they had no more authority than we, and probably no more intention.
The notion that we have not the right to take our own lives comes of our consciousness that we have not the courage. It is the plea of the coward—his excuse for continuing to live when he has nothing to live for—or his provision against such a time in the future. If he were not egotist as well as coward he would need no excuse. To one who does not regard himself as the center of creation and his sorrow as the throes of the universe, life, if not worth living, is also not worth leaving. The ancient philosopher who was asked why he did not the if, as he taught, life was no better than death, replied: “Because death is no better than life.” We do not know that either proposition is true, but the matter is not worth bothering about, for both states are supportable—life despite its pleasures and death despite its repose.
It was Robert G. Ingersoll’s opinion that there is rather too little than too much suicide in the world—that people are so cowardly as to live on long after endurance has ceased to be a virtue. This view is but a return to the wisdom of the ancients, in whose splendid civilization suicide had as honorable place as any other courageous, reasonable and unselfish act. Antony, Brutus, Cato, Seneca—these were not of the kind of men to do deeds of cowardice and folly. The smug, self-righteous modern way of looking upon the act as that of a craven or a lunatic is the creation of priests, Philistines and women. If courage is manifest in endurance of profitless discomfort it is cowardice to warm oneself when cold, to cure oneself when ill, to drive away mosquitoes, to go in when it rains. The “pursuit of happiness,” then, is not an “inalienable right,” for that implies avoidance of pain. No principle is involved in this matter; suicide is justifiable or not, according to circumstances; each case is to be considered on its merits and he having the act under advisement is sole judge. To his decision, made with whatever light he may chance to have, all honest minds will bow. The appellant has no court to which to take his appeal. Nowhere is a jurisdiction so comprehensive as to embrace the right of condemning the wretched to life.
Suicide is always courageous. We call it courage in a soldier merely to face death—say to lead a forlorn hope—although he has a chance of life and a certainty of “glory.” But the suicide does more than face death; he incurs it, and with a certainty, not of glory, but of reproach. If that is not courage we must reform our vocabulary.
True, there may be a higher courage in living than in dying—a moral courage greater than physical. The courage of the suicide, like that of the pirate, is not incompatible with a selfish disregard of the rights and interests of others—a cruel recreancy to duty and decency. I have been asked: “Do you not think it cowardly when a man leaves his family unprovided for, to end his life, because he is dissatisfied with life in general?” No, I do not; I think it selfish and cruel. Is not that enough to say of it? Must we distort words from their true meaning in order more effectually to damn the act and cover its author with a greater infamy? A word means something; despite the maunderings of the lexicographers, it does not mean whatever you want it to mean. “Cowardice” means the fear of danger, not the shirking of duty. The writer who allows himself as much liberty in the use of words as he is allowed by the dictionary-maker and by popular consent is a bad writer. He can make no impression on his reader, and would do better service at the ribbon-counter.
The ethics of suicide is not a simple matter; one can not lay down laws of universal application, but each case is to be judged, if judged at all, with a full knowledge of all the circumstances, including the mental and moral make-up of the person taking his own life—an impossible qualification for judgment. One’s time, race and religion have much to do with it. Some people, like the ancient Romans and the modern Japanese, have considered suicide in certain circumstances honorable and obligatory; among ourselves it is held in disfavor. A man of sense will not give much attention to considerations of that kind, excepting in so far as they affect others, but in judging weak offenders they are to be taken into the account. Speaking generally, then, I should say that in our time and country the following persons (and some others) are justified in removing themselves, and that to some of them it is a duty:
One afflicted with a painful or loathsome and incurable disease.
One who is a heavy burden to his friends, with no prospect of their relief.
One threatened with permanent insanity.
One irreclaimably addicted to drunkenness or some similarly destructive or offensive habit.
One without friends, property, employment or hope.
One who has disgraced himself.
Why do we honor the valiant soldier, sailor, fireman? For obedience to duty? Not at all; that alone—without the peril—seldom elicits remark, never evokes enthusiasm. It is because he faced without flinching the risk of that supreme disaster—or what we feel to be such—death. But look you: the soldier braves the danger of death; the suicide braves death itself! The leader of the forlorn hope may not be struck. The sailor who voluntarily goes down with his ship may be picked up or cast ashore. It is not certain that the wall will topple until the fireman shall have descended with his precious burden. But the suicide—his is the foeman that never missed a mark, his the sea that gives nothing back; the wall that he mounts bears no man’s weight And his, at the end of it all, is the dishonored grave where the wild ass of public opinion “Stamps o’er his head but can not break his sleep.”
from Not That It Matters
There is magic in the woods on Midsummer Day—so people tell me. Titania conducts her revels. Let others attend her court; for myself I will beg to be excused. I have no heart for revelling on Midsummer Day. On any other festival I will be as jocund as you please, but on the longest day of the year I am overburdened by the thought that from this moment the evenings are beginning to draw in. We are on the way to winter.
It is on Midsummer Day, or thereabouts, that the cuckoo changes his tune, knowing well that the best days are over and that in a little while it will be time for him to fly away. I should like this to be a learned article on “The Habits of the Cuckoo,” and yet, if it were, I doubt if I should love him at the end of it. It is best to know only the one thing of him, that he lays his eggs in another bird’s nest—a friendly idea—and beyond that to take him as we find him. And we find that his only habit which matters is the delightful one of saying “Cuckoo.” Continue reading ““Midsummer Day” — A. A. Milne”
From Delphic Intimations: Dialogues with Australian Writers and Critics, ed. Pradeep Trikha. 2007: Sarup & Sons, New Delhi.
I have preserved Australian spelling and style.
“The Breathing Author” — Gerald Murnane
This essay is the edited version of a talk given at the final session of the Gerald Murnane Research Seminar, held at the University of Newcastle on 20-21 September 2001.
I cannot conceive of myself reading a text and being unmindful that the object before my eyes is a product of human effort.
Much of my engagement with a text consists of my speculating about the methods used by the writer in the putting together of the text, or about the feelings and beliefs that drove the writer to write the text, or even about the life story of the writer.
What I am about to tell you today is the sort of detail that I would have been eager to know if it had been my fate to be a person who was drawn to read these books (points to the stack of his books near by) rather than the person who was drawn to write them.
I have for long believed that a person reveals at least as much when he reports what he cannot do or has never done as when he reports what he has done or wants to do.
I have never been in an aeroplane.
I have been as far north from my birthplace as Murwillumbah in New South Wales and as far south as Kettering in Tasmania; as far east as Bemm River in Victoria and as far west as Streaky Bay in South Australia. The distance between Murwillumbah in the north and Kettering in the south is about 1500 km. It so happens that the distance between Streaky Bay in the west and Orbost in the east is about the same. Until I calculated these distances a few days ago, I was quite unaware that my travels had been confined to an area comprising almost a square, but my learning this was no surprise to me.
I became confused, or even distressed, whenever I find myself among streets or roads that are not arranged in a rectangular grid or are so arranged but not so that the streets or roads run approximately north-south and east-west. Whenever I find myself in such a place, I feel compelled to withdraw from social intercourse and all activities other than what I call finding my bearings. These I try to find by reference to the sun or to roads or streets the alignments of which are known to me. I know I have found my bearings when I can visualise myself and my surroundings as details of a map that includes the northern suburbs of Melbourne and such prominent east-west or north-south thoroughfares of those suburbs as Bell Street or Sydney Road.
My trying to find my bearings takes much mental effort, and I fail more often than I succeed. I often believe I have succeeded but later refer to maps and find that my visualised map was wrong. When I discover this, I feel compelled to attempt a complicated exercise that I have probably never succeeded at. I am compelled first to recall the scene where I tried to find my bearings, then to recall the visualised map that proved to be wrong, and last to try to correct my remembered self, as it were: to relive the earlier experience but with the difference that I get my correct bearings. I sometimes feel this compulsion many years after the original event. While writing these notes, for example, I was compelled to recall the evening in November 1956 when I visited for the first time the suburb or Brighton, on Port Phillip Bay. It was my last day of secondary school, and my class had to meet at the home of the school captain and later to take a train into Melbourne to see a film. I arrived in Brighton by bus, in the company of boys who knew their way around that quarter of Melbourne. Later, when our class arrived on foot at Brighton Beach railway station, I stood with them on the platform where they had gathered, but I was convinced that we were waiting for the train from Melbourne. After the train had arrive and we had boarded, I remained convinced for some time that we were travelling away from Melbourne, and my peace of mind was continually disturbed during the rest of the evening by my wondering how I had so utterly lost my bearings at the railway station. Just now, as I said, I was compelled to relive that experience of more than forty years ago, but I failed yet again to understand how the map of Melbourne in my mind had been stood on its head.
I cannot understand the workings of the International Date Line.
“Child’s Play” by Robert Louis Stevenson
The regret we have for our childhood is not wholly justifiable: so much a man may lay down without fear of public ribaldry; for although we shake our heads over the change, we are not unconscious of the manifold advantages of our new state. What we lose in generous impulse, we more than gain in the habit of generously watching others; and the capacity to enjoy Shakespeare may balance a lost aptitude for playing at soldiers. Terror is gone out of our lives, moreover; we no longer see the devil in the bed-curtains nor lie awake to listen to the wind. We go to school no more; and if we have only exchanged one drudgery for another (which is by no means sure), we are set free for ever from the daily fear of chastisement. And yet a great change has overtaken us; and although we do not enjoy ourselves less, at least we take our pleasure differently. We need pickles nowadays to make Wednesday’s cold mutton please our Friday’s appetite; and I can remember the time when to call it red venison, and tell myself a hunter’s story, would have made it more palatable than the best of sauces. To the grown person, cold mutton is cold mutton all the world over; not all the mythology ever invented by man will make it better or worse to him; the broad fact, the clamant reality, of the mutton carries away before it such seductive figments. But for the child it is still possible to weave an enchantment over eatables; and if he has but read of a dish in a story-book, it will be heavenly manna to him for a week.
If a grown man does not like eating and drinking and exercise, if he is not something positive in his tastes, it means he has a feeble body and should have some medicine; but children may be pure spirits, if they will, and take their enjoyment in a world of moon-shine. Sensation does not count for so much in our first years as afterwards; something of the swaddling numbness of infancy clings about us; we see and touch and hear through a sort of golden mist. Children, for instance, are able enough to see, but they have no great faculty for looking; they do not use their eyes for the pleasure of using them, but for by-ends of their own; and the things I call to mind seeing most vividly, were not beautiful in themselves, but merely interesting or enviable to me as I thought they might be turned to practical account in play. Nor is the sense of touch so clean and poignant in children as it is in a man. If you will turn over your old memories, I think the sensations of this sort you remember will be somewhat vague, and come to not much more than a blunt, general sense of heat on summer days, or a blunt, general sense of wellbeing in bed. And here, of course, you will understand pleasurable sensations; for overmastering pain—the most deadly and tragical element in life, and the true commander of man’s soul and body—alas! pain has its own way with all of us; it breaks in, a rude visitant, upon the fairy garden where the child wanders in a dream, no less surely than it rules upon the field of battle, or sends the immortal war-god whimpering to his father; and innocence, no more than philosophy, can protect us from this sting. As for taste, when we bear in mind the excesses of unmitigated sugar which delight a youthful palate, “it is surely no very cynical asperity” to think taste a character of the maturer growth. Smell and hearing are perhaps more developed; I remember many scents, many voices, and a great deal of spring singing in the woods. But hearing is capable of vast improvement as a means of pleasure; and there is all the world between gaping wonderment at the jargon of birds, and the emotion with which a man listens to articulate music. Continue reading ““Child’s Play” — Robert Louis Stevenson”
“Hawthorne” by Charles Ives
from Essays Before a Sonata
The substance of Hawthorne is so dripping wet with the supernatural, the phantasmal, the mystical—so surcharged with adventures, from the deeper picturesque to the illusive fantastic, one unconsciously finds oneself thinking of him as a poet of greater imaginative impulse than Emerson or Thoreau. He was not a greater poet possibly than they—but a greater artist. Not only the character of his substance, but the care in his manner throws his workmanship, in contrast to theirs, into a kind of bas-relief. Like Poe he quite naturally and unconsciously reaches out over his subject to his reader. His mesmerism seeks to mesmerize us—beyond Zenobia’s sister. But he is too great an artist to show his hand “in getting his audience,” as Poe and Tschaikowsky occasionally do. His intellectual muscles are too strong to let him become over-influenced, as Ravel and Stravinsky seem to be by the morbidly fascinating—a kind of false beauty obtained by artistic monotony. However, we cannot but feel that he would weave his spell over us—as would the Grimms and Aesop. We feel as much under magic as the “Enchanted Frog.” This is part of the artist’s business. The effect is a part of his art-effort in its inception. Emerson’s substance and even his manner has little to do with a designed effect—his thunderbolts or delicate fragments are flashed out regardless—they may knock us down or just spatter us—it matters little to him—but Hawthorne is more considerate; that is, he is more artistic, as men say.
Hawthorne may be more noticeably indigenous or may have more local color, perhaps more national color than his Concord contemporaries. But the work of anyone who is somewhat more interested in psychology than in transcendental philosophy, will weave itself around individuals and their personalities. If the same anyone happens to live in Salem, his work is likely to be colored by the Salem wharves and Salem witches. If the same anyone happens to live in the “Old Manse” near the Concord Battle Bridge, he is likely “of a rainy day to betake himself to the huge garret,” the secrets of which he wonders at, “but is too reverent of their dust and cobwebs to disturb.” He is likely to “bow below the shriveled canvas of an old (Puritan) clergyman in wig and gown—the parish priest of a century ago—a friend of Whitefield.” He is likely to come under the spell of this reverend Ghost who haunts the “Manse” and as it rains and darkens and the sky glooms through the dusty attic windows, he is likely “to muse deeply and wonderingly upon the humiliating fact that the works of man’s intellect decay like those of his hands” … “that thought grows moldy,” and as the garret is in Massachusetts, the “thought” and the “mold” are likely to be quite native. When the same anyone puts his poetry into novels rather than essays, he is likely to have more to say about the life around him—about the inherited mystery of the town—than a poet of philosophy is. Continue reading ““Hawthorne” — Charles Ives”
“Democratic Vistas” by Walt Whitman
Political democracy, as it exists and practically works in America, with all its threatening evils, supplies a training school for making first-class men. It is life’s gymnasium, not of good only, but of all. We try often, though we fall back often. A brave delight, fit for freedom’s athletes, fills these arenas, and fully satisfies, out of the action in them, irrespective of success. Whatever we do not attain, we at any rate attain the experiences of the fight, the hardening of the strong campaign, and throb with currents of attempt at least. Time is ample. Let the victors come after us. Not for nothing does evil play its part among us. Judging from the main portions of the history of theworld, so far, justice is always in jeopardy, peace walks amid hourly pitfalls, and of slavery, misery, meanness, the craft of tyrants and the credulity of the populace, in some of the protean forms, no voice can at any time say, They are not. The clouds break a little, and the sun shines out-but soon and certain the lowering darkness falls again, as if to last forever. Yet is there an immortal courage and prophecy in every sane soul that cannot, must not, under any circumstances, capitulate. Vive, the attack–the perennial assault! Vive, the unpopular cause–the spirit that audacious]y aims–the never-abandoned efforts, pursued the same amid opposing proofs and precedents.
Once, before the war (alas! I dare not say how many times the mood has come!) I, too, was filled with doubt and gloom. A foreigner, an acute and good man, had impressively said to me, that day-putting in form, indeed, my own observations: “I have traveled much in the United States, and watched their politicians, and listened to the speeches of the candidates, and read the journals, and gone into the public-houses, and heard the unguarded talk of men. And I have found your vaunted America honeycombed from top to toe with infidelism, even to itself and its own program. I have marked the brazen hell-faces of secession and slavery gazing defiantly from all the windows and doorways. I have everywhere found, primarily, thieves and scalliwags arranging the nominations to offices, and sometimes filling the offices themselves. I have found the north just as full of bad stuff as the south. Of the holders of public office in the Nation or the States or their municipalities, I have found that not one in a hundred has been chosen by any spontaneous selection of the outsiders, the people, but all have been nominated and put through by little or large caucuses of the politicians, and have got in by corrupt rings and electioneering, not capacity or desert. I have noticed how the millions of sturdy farmers and mechanics are thus the helpless supple-jacks of comparatively few politicians. And I have noticed, more and more, the alarming spectacle of parties usurping the government, and openly and shamelessly wielding it for party purposes. Continue reading ““Democratic Vistas” — Walt Whitman”
“When I Knew Stephen Crane” by Willa Cather
It was, I think, in the spring of ’94 that a slender, narrow-chested fellow in a shabby grey suit, with a soft felt hat pulled low over his eyes, sauntered into the office of the managing editor of the Nebraska State Journal and introduced himself as Stephen Crane. He stated that he was going to Mexico to do some work for the Bacheller Syndicate and get rid of his cough, and that he would be stopping in Lincoln for a few days. Later he explained that he was out of money and would be compelled to wait until he got a check from the East before he went further. I was a Junior at the Nebraska State University at the time, and was doing some work for the State Journal in my leisure time, and I happened to be in the managing editor’s room when Mr. Crane introduced himself. I was just off the range; I knew a little Greek and something about cattle and a good horse when I saw one, and beyond horses and cattle I considered nothing of vital importance except good stories and the people who wrote them. This was the first man of letters I had ever met in the flesh, and when the young man announced who he was, I dropped into a chair behind the editor’s desk where I could stare at him without being too much in evidence.
Only a very youthful enthusiasm and a large propensity for hero worship could have found anything impressive in the young man who stood before the managing editor’s desk. He was thin to emaciation, his face was gaunt and unshaven, a thin dark moustache straggled on his upper lip, his black hair grew low on his forehead and was shaggy and unkempt. His grey clothes were much the worse for wear and fitted him so badly it seemed unlikely he had ever been measured for them. He wore a flannel shirt and a slovenly apology for a necktie, and his shoes were dusty and worn gray about the toes and were badly run over at the heel. I had seen many a tramp printer come up the Journal stairs to hunt a job, but never one who presented such a disreputable appearance as this story-maker man. He wore gloves, which seemed rather a contradiction to the general slovenliness of his attire, but when he took them off to search his pockets for his credentials, I noticed that his hands were singularly fine; long, white, and delicately shaped, with thin, nervous fingers. I have seen pictures of Aubrey Beardsley’s hands that recalled Crane’s very vividly. Continue reading ““When I Knew Stephen Crane” — Willa Cather”
“Science and Philosophy” by William Carlos Williams is collected in The Embodiment of Knowledge (New Directions).
“The Bible as Poetry” by Walt Whitman
I suppose one cannot at this day say anything new, from a literary point of view, about those autochthonic bequests of Asia—the Hebrew Bible, the mighty Hindu epics, and a hundred lesser but typical works; (not now definitely including the Iliad—though that work was certainly of Asiatic genesis, as Homer himself was—considerations which seem curiously ignored.) But will there ever be a time or place—ever a student, however modern, of the grand art, to whom those compositions will not afford profounder lessons than all else of their kind in the garnerage of the past? Could there be any more opportune suggestion, to the current popular writer and reader of verse, what the office of poet was in primeval times—and is yet capable of being, anew, adjusted entirely to the modern?
All the poems of Orientalism, with the Old and New Testaments at the centre, tend to deep and wide, (I don’t know but the deepest and widest,) psychological development—with little, or nothing at all, of the mere esthetic, the principal verse-requirement of our day. Very late, but unerringly, comes to every capable student the perception that it is not in beauty, it is not in art, it is not even in science, that the profoundest laws of the case have their eternal sway and outcropping.
In his discourse on “Hebrew Poets” De Sola Mendes said: “The fundamental feature of Judaism, of the Hebrew nationality, was religion; its poetry was naturally religious. Its subjects, God and Providence, the covenants with Israel, God in Nature, and as reveal’d, God the Creator and Governor, Nature in her majesty and beauty, inspired hymns and odes to Nature’s God. And then the checker’d history of the nation furnish’d allusions, illustrations, and subjects for epic display—the glory of the sanctuary, the offerings, the splendid ritual, the Holy City, and lov’d Palestine with its pleasant valleys and wild tracts.” Dr. Mendes said “that rhyming was not a characteristic of Hebrew poetry at all. Metre was not a necessary mark of poetry. Great poets discarded it; the early Jewish poets knew it not.” Compared with the famed epics of Greece, and lesser ones since, the spinal supports of the Bible are simple and meagre. All its history, biography, narratives, &c., are as beads, strung on and indicating the eternal thread of the Deific purpose and power. Yet with only deepest faith for impetus, and such Deific purpose for palpable or impalpable theme, it often transcends the masterpieces of Hellas, and all masterpieces.
The metaphors daring beyond account, the lawless soul, extravagant by our standards, the glow of love and friendship, the fervent kiss—nothing in argument or logic, but unsurpass’d in proverbs, in religious ecstasy, in suggestions of common mortality and death, man’s great equalizers—the spirit everything, the ceremonies and forms of the churches nothing, faith limitless, its immense sensuousness immensely spiritual—an incredible, all-inclusive non-worldliness and dew-scented illiteracy (the antipodes of our Nineteenth Century business absorption and morbid refinement)—no hair-splitting doubts, no sickly sulking and sniffling, no “Hamlet,” no “Adonais,” no “Thanatopsis,” no “In Memoriam.”
The culminated proof of the poetry of a country is the quality of its personnel, which, in any race, can never be really superior without superior poems. The finest blending of individuality with universality (in my opinion nothing out of the galaxies of the “Iliad,” or Shakspere’s heroes, or from the Tennysonian “Idylls,” so lofty, devoted and starlike,) typified in the songs of those old Asiatic lands. Men and women as great columnar trees. Nowhere else the abnegation of self towering in such quaint sublimity; nowhere else the simplest human emotions conquering the gods of heaven, and fate itself. (The episode, for instance, toward the close of the “Mahabharata”—the journey of the wife Savitri with the god of death, Yama,
“One terrible to see—blood-red his garb,
His body huge and dark, bloodshot his eyes,
Which flamed like suns beneath his turban cloth,
Arm’d was he with a noose,”
who carries off the soul of the dead husband, the wife tenaciously following, and—by the resistless charm of perfect poetic recitation!—eventually redeeming her captive mate.)
I remember how enthusiastically William H. Seward, in his last days, once expatiated on these themes, from his travels in Turkey, Egypt, and Asia Minor, finding the oldest Biblical narratives exactly illustrated there to-day with apparently no break or change along three thousand years—the veil’d women, the costumes, the gravity and simplicity, all the manners just the same. The veteran Trelawney said he found the only real nobleman of the world in a good average specimen of the mid-aged or elderly Oriental. In the East the grand figure, always leading, is the old man, majestic, with flowing beard, paternal, &c. In Europe and America, it is, as we know, the young fellow—in novels, a handsome and interesting hero, more or less juvenile—in operas, a tenor with blooming cheeks, black mustache, superficial animation, and perhaps good lungs, but no more depth than skim-milk. But reading folks probably get their information of those Bible areas and current peoples, as depicted in print by English and French cads, the most shallow, impudent, supercilious brood on earth.
I have said nothing yet of the cumulus of associations (perfectly legitimate parts of its influence, and finally in many respects the dominant parts,) of the Bible as a poetic entity, and of every portion of it. Not the old edifice only—the congeries also of events and struggles and surroundings, of which it has been the scene and motive—even the horrors, dreads, deaths. How many ages and generations have brooded and wept and agonized over this book! What untellable joys and ecstasies—what support to martyrs at the stake—from it. (No really great song can ever attain full purport till long after the death of its singer—till it has accrued and incorporated the many passions, many joys and sorrows, it has itself arous’d.) To what myriads has it been the shore and rock of safety—the refuge from driving tempest and wreck! Translated in all languages, how it has united this diverse world! Of civilized lands to-day, whose of our retrospects has it not interwoven and link’d and permeated? Not only does it bring us what is clasp’d within its covers; nay, that is the least of what it brings. Of its thousands, there is not a verse, not a word, but is thick-studded with human emotions, successions of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, of our own antecedents, inseparable from that background of us, on which, phantasmal as it is, all that we are to-day inevitably depends—our ancestry, our past.
Strange, but true, that the principal factor in cohering the nations, eras and paradoxes of the globe, by giving them a common platform of two or three great ideas, a commonalty of origin, and projecting kosmic brotherhood, the dream of all hope, all time—that the long trains gestations, attempts and failures, resulting in the New World, and in modern solidarity and politics—are to be identified and resolv’d back into a collection of old poetic lore, which, more than any one thing else, has been the axis of civilization and history through thousands of years—and except for which this America of ours, with its polity and essentials, could not now be existing.
No true bard will ever contravene the Bible. If the time ever comes when iconoclasm does its extremest in one direction against the Books of the Bible in its present form, the collection must still survive in another, and dominate just as much as hitherto, or more than hitherto, through its divine and primal poetic structure. To me, that is the living and definite element-principle of the work, evolving everything else. Then the continuity; the oldest and newest Asiatic utterance and character, and all between, holding together, like the apparition of the sky, and coming to us the same. Even to our Nineteenth Century here are the fountain heads of song.
Kant has written a treatise on The Vital Powers; but I should like to write a dirge on them, since their lavish use in the form of knocking, hammering, and tumbling things about has made the whole of my life a daily torment. Certainly there are people, nay, very many, who will smile at this, because they are not sensitive to noise; it is precisely these people, however, who are not sensitive to argument, thought, poetry or art, in short, to any kind of intellectual impression: a fact to be assigned to the coarse quality and strong texture of their brain tissues. On the other hand, in the biographies or in other records of the personal utterances of almost all great writers, I find complaints of the pain that noise has occasioned to intellectual men. For example, in the case of Kant, Goethe, Lichtenberg, Jean Paul; and indeed when no mention is made of the matter it is merely because the context did not lead up to it. I should explain the subject we are treating in this way: If a big diamond is cut up into pieces, it immediately loses its value as a whole; or if an army is scattered or divided into small bodies, it loses all its power; and in the same way a great intellect has no more power than an ordinary one as soon as it is interrupted, disturbed, distracted, or diverted; for its superiority entails that it concentrates all its strength on one point and object, just as a concave mirror concentrates all the rays of light thrown upon it. Noisy interruption prevents this concentration. This is why the most eminent intellects have always been strongly averse to any kind of disturbance, interruption and distraction, and above everything to that violent interruption which is caused by noise; other people do not take any particular notice of this sort of thing. The most intelligent of all the European nations has called “Never interrupt” the eleventh commandment. But noise is the most impertinent of all interruptions, for it not only interrupts our own thoughts but disperses them. Where, however, there is nothing to interrupt, noise naturally will not be felt particularly. Sometimes a trifling but incessant noise torments and disturbs me for a time, and before I become distinctly conscious of it I feel it merely as the effort of thinking becomes more difficult, just as I should feel a weight on my foot; then I realise what it is. Continue reading ““On Noise” — Arthur Schopenhauer”