Mountain fable (Voltaire)

It is a very old, very universal fable that tells of the mountain which, having frightened all the countryside by its outcry that it was in labor, was hissed by all present when it brought into the world a mere mouse. The people in the pit were not philosophers. Those who hissed should have admired. It was as fine for the mountain to give birth to a mouse, as for the mouse to give birth to a mountain. A rock which produces a rat is a very prodigious thing; and never has the world seen anything approaching this miracle. All the globes of the universe could not call a fly into existence. Where the vulgar laugh, the philosopher admires; and he laughs where the vulgar open their big, stupid eyes in astonishment.

From Philosophical Dictionary.

“Authors” — Voltaire

“Authors” — Voltaire

(From Philosophical Dictionary)

Author is a generic name which can, like the name of all other professions, signify good or bad, worthy of respect or ridicule, useful and agreeable, or trash for the wastepaper-basket.


We think that the author of a good work should refrain from three things—from putting his name, save very modestly, from the epistle dedicatory, and from the preface. Others should refrain from a fourth—that is, from writing.


Prefaces are another stumbling-block. “The ‘I,'” said Pascal, “is hateful.” Speak as little of yourself as possible; for you must know that the reader’s self-esteem is as great as yours. He will never forgive you for wanting to condemn him to have a good opinion of you. It is for your book to speak for you, if it comes to be read by the crowd.


If you want to be an author, if you want to write a book; reflect that it must be useful and new, or at least infinitely agreeable.


If an ignoramus, a pamphleteer, presumes to criticize without discrimination, you can confound him; but make rare mention of him, for fear of sullying your writings.


If you are attacked as regards your style, never reply; it is for your work alone to make answer.


Someone says you are ill, be content that you are well, without wanting to prove to the public that you are in perfect health. And above all remember that the public cares precious little whether you are well or ill.


A hundred authors make compilations in order to have bread, and twenty pamphleteers make excerpts from these compilations, or apology for them, or criticism and satire of them, also with the idea of having bread, because they have no other trade. All these persons go on Friday to the police lieutenant of Paris to ask permission to sell their rubbish. They have audience immediately after the strumpets who do not look at them because they know that these are underhand dealings.


Real authors are those who have succeeded in one of the real arts, in epic poetry, in tragedy or comedy, in history or philosophy, who have taught men or charmed them. The others of whom we have spoken are, among men of letters, what wasps are among birds.

Pain and boredom (Schopenhauer)

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).

It’s very confusing (Calvin & Hobbes)

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Happiness Formula (Nietzsche)

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“Best films (not in order)” — Susan Sontag

Best films (not in order)

  1. Bresson, Pickpocket
  2. Kubrick, 2001
  3. Vidor, The Big Parade
  4. Visconti, Ossessione
  5. Kurosawa, High and Low
  6. Syberberg, Hitler
  7. Godard, 2 ou 3 Choses . . .
  8. Rossellini, Louis XIV
  9. Renoir, La Regle du Jeu
  10. Ozu, Tokyo Story
  11. Dreyer, Gertrud
  12. Eisenstein, Potemkin
  13. Von Sternberg, The Blue Angel
  14. Lang, Dr. Mabuse
  15. Anonioni, L’Eclisse
  16. Bresson, Un Condamne a Mort . . . 
  17. Grance, Napoleon
  18. Vertov, The Man with the Movie Camera
  19. Feuillade, Judex
  20. Anger, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome
  21. Godard, Vivre Sa Vie
  22. Bellocchio, Pugni in Tasca
  23. Carne, Les Enfants du Pradis
  24. Kurosawa, The Seven Samurai
  25. Tati, Playtime
  26. Truffaut, L’Enfant Savage
  27. Rivette, L’Amour Fou
  28. Eisenstein, Strike
  29. Von Stroheim, Greed
  30. Straub, . . . Anna Magadalena Bach
  31. Taviani bros, Padre Padrone
  32. Renais, Muriel
  33. Becker, Le Trou
  34. Cocteau, La Belle et la Bete
  35. Bergman, Persona
  36. Fassbinder, . . . Petra von Kant
  37. Griffith, Intolerance
  38. Godard, Contempt
  39. Marker, La Jete
  40. Conner, Crossroads
  41. Fassbinder, Chinese Rouleette
  42. Renoir, La Grande Illusion
  43. Opuls, The Earrings of Madame de . . .
  44. Kheifits, The Lady with the Little Dog
  45. Godard, Les Carabiners
  46. Bresson, Lancelot du Lac
  47. Ford, The Searchers
  48. Bertolucci, Prima della Rivoluzione
  49. Pasolini, Teorema
  50. Sagan, Madchen in Uniform

[The list continues up to number 228, where SS abandons it].

—From a 1977 entry in one of Susan Sontag’s notebooks. The list is published as part of As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals & Notebooks, 1964-1980.

“Genius and Virtue” — Arthur Schopenhauer

“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 ““Genius and Virtue” — Arthur Schopenhauer”

Žižek Tells a Dirty Joke

Jacques Derrida in Conversation with Raymond Williams (1986 Documentary)

Slavoj Žižek Discusses Philosophy, Topless in Bed (And So On and So On)

“On Being Shy” — Jerome K. Jerome

“On Being Shy” by Jerome K. Jerome

All great literary men are shy. I am myself, though I am told it is hardly noticeable.

I am glad it is not. It used to be extremely prominent at one time, and was the cause of much misery to myself and discomfort to every one about me—my lady friends especially complained most bitterly about it.

A shy man’s lot is not a happy one. The men dislike him, the women despise him, and he dislikes and despises himself. Use brings him no relief, and there is no cure for him except time; though I once came across a delicious recipe for overcoming the misfortune. It appeared among the “answers to correspondents” in a small weekly journal and ran as follows—I have never forgotten it: “Adopt an easy and pleasing manner, especially toward ladies.”

Poor wretch! I can imagine the grin with which he must have read that advice. “Adopt an easy and pleasing manner, especially toward ladies,” forsooth! Don’t you adopt anything of the kind, my dear young shy friend. Your attempt to put on any other disposition than your own will infallibly result in your becoming ridiculously gushing and offensively familiar. Be your own natural self, and then you will only be thought to be surly and stupid.

The shy man does have some slight revenge upon society for the torture it inflicts upon him. He is able, to a certain extent, to communicate his misery. He frightens other people as much as they frighten him. He acts like a damper upon the whole room, and the most jovial spirits become in his presence depressed and nervous.

This is a good deal brought about by misunderstanding. Many people mistake the shy man’s timidity for overbearing arrogance and are awed and insulted by it. His awkwardness is resented as insolent carelessness, and when, terror-stricken at the first word addressed to him, the blood rushes to his head and the power of speech completely fails him, he is regarded as an awful example of the evil effects of giving way to passion.

But, indeed, to be misunderstood is the shy man’s fate on every occasion; and whatever impression he endeavors to create, he is sure to convey its opposite. When he makes a joke, it is looked upon as a pretended relation of fact and his want of veracity much condemned. His sarcasm is accepted as his literal opinion and gains for him the reputation of being an ass, while if, on the other hand, wishing to ingratiate himself, he ventures upon a little bit of flattery, it is taken for satire and he is hated ever afterward. Continue reading ““On Being Shy” — Jerome K. Jerome”

Derrida Contemplates His Death on Film

“In Honor of Friendship” — Nietzsche

Capture

Perfections of a Fool (Blake)

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Born Free (Rousseau)

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“On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature” — Robert Louis Stevenson

There is nothing more disenchanting to man than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art.  All our arts and occupations lie wholly on the surface; it is on the surface that we perceive their beauty, fitness, and significance; and to pry below is to be appalled by their emptiness and shocked by the coarseness of the strings and pulleys.  In a similar way, psychology itself, when pushed to any nicety, discovers an abhorrent baldness, but rather from the fault of our analysis than from any poverty native to the mind.  And perhaps in æsthetics the reason is the same: those disclosures which seem fatal to the dignity of art seem so perhaps only in the proportion of our ignorance; and those conscious and unconscious artifices which it seems unworthy of the serious artist to employ were yet, if we had the power to trace them to their springs, indications of a delicacy of the sense finer than we conceive, and hints of ancient harmonies in nature.  This ignorance at least is largely irremediable.  We shall never learn the affinities of beauty, for they lie too deep in nature and too far back in the mysterious history of man.  The amateur, in consequence, will always grudgingly receive details of method, which can be stated but never can wholly be explained; nay, on the principle laid down in Hudibras, that

‘Still the less they understand,
The more they admire the sleight-of-hand,’

many are conscious at each new disclosure of a diminution in the ardour of their pleasure.  I must therefore warn that well-known character, the general reader, that I am here embarked upon a most distasteful business: taking down the picture from the wall and looking on the back; and, like the inquiring child, pulling the musical cart to pieces.

1.  Choice of Words.—The art of literature stands apart from among its sisters, because the material in which the literary artist works is the dialect of life; hence, on the one hand, a strange freshness and immediacy of address to the public mind, which is ready prepared to understand it; but hence, on the other, a singular limitation.  The sister arts enjoy the use of a plastic and ductile material, like the modeller’s clay; literature alone is condemned to work in mosaic with finite and quite rigid words.  You have seen these blocks, dear to the nursery: this one a pillar, that a pediment, a third a window or a vase.  It is with blocks of just such arbitrary size and figure that the literary architect is condemned to design the palace of his art.  Nor is this all; for since these blocks, or words, are the acknowledged currency of our daily affairs, there are here possible none of those suppressions by which other arts obtain relief, continuity, and vigour: no hieroglyphic touch, no smoothed impasto, no inscrutable shadow, as in painting; no blank wall, as in architecture; but every word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph must move in a logical progression, and convey a definite conventional import.

Now the first merit which attracts in the pages of a good writer, or the talk of a brilliant conversationalist, is the apt choice and contrast of the words employed.  It is, indeed, a strange art to take these blocks, rudely conceived for the purpose of the market or the bar, and by tact of application touch them to the finest meanings and distinctions, restore to them their primal energy, wittily shift them to another issue, or make of them a drum to rouse the passions.  But though this form of merit is without doubt the most sensible and seizing, it is far from being equally present in all writers.  The effect of words in Shakespeare, their singular justice, significance, and poetic charm, is different, indeed, from the effect of words in Addison or Fielding.  Or, to take an example nearer home, the words in Carlyle seem electrified into an energy of lineament, like the faces of men furiously moved; whilst the words in Macaulay, apt enough to convey his meaning, harmonious enough in sound, yet glide from the memory like undistinguished elements in a general effect.  But the first class of writers have no monopoly of literary merit.  There is a sense in which Addison is superior to Carlyle; a sense in which Cicero is better than Tacitus, in which Voltaire excels Montaigne: it certainly lies not in the choice of words; it lies not in the interest or value of the matter; it lies not in force of intellect, of poetry, or of humour.  The three first are but infants to the three second; and yet each, in a particular point of literary art, excels his superior in the whole.  What is that point? Continue reading ““On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature” — Robert Louis Stevenson”

A Brief Review of David Malouf’s Essay The Happy Life (Book Acquired, Some Time in December 2012)

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When David Malouf’s little hardback essay The Happy Life showed up late last year to Biblioklept World Headquarters, I’ll admit to grimacing a bit. I judge books by their covers, their appearance, their size, and frankly Malouf’s little book, with its smallish dimensions and hokey subtitle seemed to scream “self-help/gift book.” And oh the emoticon!

But before I do these “Books Acquired” I always take the time to sample the prose a bit. Here’s what happened with Malouf: I kept reading. Malouf snagged me into doing a thought experiment on the first page (“Think of a medieval farmer as he struggled to keep body and soul together”), an exercise that quickly led to citations from Solzhenitsyn, Montaigne, and Sir Henry Wotton—before posing the book’s central questions:

The question that arises is not so much ‘How should we live if we want to be happy?’ but how is it, when the chief sources of human unhappiness, of misery and wretchedness, have largely been removed from our lives—large-scale social injustice, famine, plague and other diseases, the near-certainty of an early death—that happiness still eludes so many of us? What have we succumbed to or failed to do that might have helped us? What is it in us, or in the world we have created, that continues to hold us back?

First World Problems! Seriously though, Malouf seems aware of the simple answer to these questions—it’s impossible and likely dangerous to be happy all the time; what he really seems concerned about are the paradigms and ideologies and systems—government, media, corpocracy, pick your poison—that create impositions of happiness as a kind of ideal. As such, Malouf returns again and again to Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” along with Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He ends his long essay with a discussion of Solzhenisyn’s Shukov, “an unlikely example of the happy man.” And through this storytelling, we can find a moment of stabilizing happiness too:

Fiction, with its preference for what is small and might elsewhere seem irrelevant; its facility for smuggling us into another skin and allowing us to live a new life there; its painstaking devotion to what without it might go unnoticed and unseen; its respect for contingency, and the unlikely and odd; its willingness to expose itself to moments of low, almost animal being and make them nobly illuminating, can deliver truths we might not otherwise stumble on.

Shukhov is not happy because he has solved the problem of ‘how to live’ —the live he lives is too provisional, too makeshift for that. Or because, as the classical schools would have put it, he has achieved quite self-containment, self-sufficiency. Quite the opposite.

What he achieves, briefly, intermittently, is moments of self-fulfillment, something different and more accessible, more democratic we might call it, than self-containment. But he achieves it only at moments.

He is happynow—who can know what tomorrow or the day after will do to him? He is happy within limits—and this may be a clue to what makes happiness possible for him, or for any of us.

There’s nothing really radical about this thesis—that we can claim agency to our own happiness by choosing to measure it in small units—but the way that Malouf reaches it is pleasurable to follow and intellectually engaging. I hope that some suckers judge this book by its cover, pick it up in the hopes of buying a map to contentment, and then stick around for Malouf’s journey through literature, philosophy, art, and history. Good stuff.

The Happy Life is new in hardback from Pantheon.