J’ai de mes ancêtres

‘If it be permitted us to assign sex to nations as to individuals, we should have to say without hesitance that the Celtic race… is an essentially feminine race. […]

Ireland above all would offer a religious physiognomy quite peculiar to itself, which would appear singularly original, were history in a position to reveal it in its entirety. When we consider the legions of Irish saints who in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries inundated the Continent and arrived from their isle bearing with them their stubborn spirit, their attachment to their own usages, their subtle and realistic turn of mind, and see the Scots (such was the name given to the Irish) doing duty, until the twelfth century, as instructors in grammar and literature to all the West, we cannot doubt that Ireland, in the first half of the Middle Ages, was the scene of a singular religious movement. Studious philologists and daring philosophers, the Hibernian monks were above all indefatigable copyists; and it was in part owing to them that the work of the pen became a holy task. Columba, secretly warned that his last hour is at hand, finishes the page of the psalter which he has commenced, writes at the foot that he bequeaths the continuation to his successor, and then goes into the church to die. Nowhere was monastic life to find such docile subjects. Credulous as a child, timid, indolent, inclined to submit and obey, the Irishman alone was capable of lending himself to that complete self-abdication in the hands of the abbot, which we find so deeply marked in the historical and legendary memorials of the Irish Church. One easily recognises the land where, in our own days, the priest, without provoking the slightest scandal, can, on a Sunday before quitting the altar, give the orders for his dinner in a very audible manner, and announce the farm where he intends to go and dine, and where he will hear his flock in confession. In the presence of a people which lived by imagination and the senses alone, the Church did not consider itself under the necessity of dealing severely with the caprices of religious fantasy.’

Ernest Renan, The Poetry of the Celtic Races, translated by W. G. Hutchison.

 

‘From my ancestors the Gauls I have pale blue eyes, a narrow brain, and awkwardness in competition. I think my clothes are as barbaric as theirs. But I don’t butter my hair.

The Gauls were the most stupid hide-flayers and hay-burners of their time.

From them, I inherit: idolatry, and love of sacrelige; – oh! all sorts of vice, anger, lechery, – terrific stuff, lechery; – lying, above all, and laziness.

I have a horror of all trades and crafts. Bosses and workers, all of them peasants, and common. The hand that holds the pen is as good as the one that holds the plow. – What a century for hands! – I’ll never learn to use my hands. And then, domesticity goes too far. The propriety of beggary shames me. Criminals are as disgusting as men without balls: I’m intact, and I don’t care.

But! who has made my tongue so treacherous, that until now it has counseled and kept me in idleness? I have not used even my body to get along. Out-idling the sleepy toad, I have lived everywhere. There’s not one family in Europe that I don’t know. – Families, I mean, like mine, who owe their existence to the Declaration of the Rights of Man. – I have known each family’s eldest son!

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If only I had a link to some point in the history of France!

But instead, nothing.

I am well aware that I have always been of an inferior race. I cannot understand revolt. My race has never risen, except to plunder: to devour like wolves a beast they did not kill.

I remember the history of France, the Eldest Daughter of the Church. I would have gone, a village serf, crusading to the Holy Land; my head is full of roads in the Swabian plains, of the sight of Byzantium, of the ramparts of Jerusalem; the cult of Mary, the pitiful thought of Christ crucified, turns in my head with a thousand profane enchantments. – I sit like a leper among broken pots and nettles, at the foot of a wall eaten away by the sun. – And later, a wandering mercenary, I would have bivouacked under German nighttimes.

Ah! one thing more: I dance the Sabbath in a scarlet clearing, with old women and children.

I don’t remember much beyond this land, and Christianity. I will see myself forever in its past. But always alone; without a family; what language, in fact, did I used to speak? I never see myself in the councils of Christ; nor in the councils of the Lords, – Christ’s representatives.

What was I in the century past: I only find myself today. The vagabonds, the hazy wars are gone. The inferior race has swept over all – the People, as they put it, Reason; Nation and Science.

Ah, Science! Everything is taken from the past. For the body and the soul, – the last sacrament, – we have Medicine and Philosophy, household remedies and folk songs rearrainged. And royal entertainments, and games that kings forbid! Geography, Cosmography, Mechanics, Chemistry!…

Science, the new nobility! Progress. The world moves!… And why shouldn’t it?

We have visions of numbers. We are moving toward the Spirit. What I say is oracular and absolutely right. I understand, and since I cannot express myself except in pagan terms, I would rather keep quiet.

Pagan blood returns! The Spirit is at hand, why does Christ not help me, and grant my soul nobility and freedom. Ah! but the Gospel belongs to the past! The Gospel! The Gospel.

I wait gluttinously for God. I have been of an inferior race for ever and ever.

And now I am on the beaches of Brittany. Let cities light their lamps in the evening. My daytime is done; I am leaving Europe. The air of the sea will burn my lungs; lost climates will turn my skin to leather. To swim, to pulverize grass, to hunt, above all to smoke; to drink strong drinks, as strong as molten ore, – as did those dear ancestors around their fires.

I will come back with limbs of iron, with dark skin, and angry eyes: in this mask, they will think I belong to a strong race. I will have gold: I will be brutal and indolent. Women nurse these ferocious invalids come back from the tropics. I will become involved in politics. Saved.

Now I am accursed, I detest my native land. The best thing is a drunken sleep, stretched out on some strip of shore.

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But no one leaves. – Let us set out once more on our native roads, burdened with my vice, that vice that since the age of reason has driven roots of suffering into my side – that towers to heaven, beats me, hurls me down, drags me on.

Ultimate innocence, final timidity. All’s said. Carry no more my loathing and treacheries before the world.

Come on! Marching, burdens, the desert, boredom and anger.

Hire myself to whom? What beasts adore? What sacred images destroy? What hearts shall I break? What lie maintain? – Through what blood wade?

Better to keep away from justice. – A hard life, outright stupor, – with a dried-out fist to lift the coffin lid, lie down, and suffocate. No old age this way, no danger: terror is very un-French.

– Ah! I am so forsaken I will offer at any shrine impulses toward perfection.

Oh my self-denial, my marvelous Charity! my Selfless love! And still here below!

De Profundis Domine, what an ass I am!

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When I was still a little child, I admired the hardened convict on whom the prison door will always close; I used to visit the bars and the rented rooms his presence had consecrated; I saw with his eyes the blue sky and the flower-filled work of the fields; I followed his fatal scent through city streets. He had more strength than the saints, more sense than any explorer – and he, he alone! was witness to his glory and his rightness.

Along the open road on winter nights, homeless, cold, and hungry, one voice gripped my frozen heart: “Weakness or strength: you exist, that is strength. You don’t know where you are going or why you are going, go in everywhere, answer everyone. No one will kill you, any more than if you were a corpse.” In the morning my eyes were so vacant and my face so dead, that the people I met may not even have seen me.

In cities, mud went suddenly red and black, like a mirror when a lamp in the next room moves, like treasure in the forest! Good luck, I cried, and I saw a sea of flames and smoke rise to heaven; and left and right, all wealth exploded like a billion thunderbolts.

But orgies and the companionship of women were impossible for me. Not even a friend. I saw myself before an angry mob, facing a firing squad, weeping out sorrows they could not understand, and pardoning! – like Joan of Arc! – “Priests, professors and doctors, you are mistaken in delivering me into the hands of the law. I have never been one of you; I have never been a Christian; I belong to the race that sang on the scaffold; I do not understand your laws; I have no moral sense; I am a brute; you are making a mistake…”

Yes, my eyes are closed to your light. I am an animal, a nigger. But I can be saved. You are fake niggers; maniacs, savages, misers, all of you. Businessman, you’re a nigger; judge, you’re a nigger; general, you’re a nigger; emperor, old scratch-head, you’re a nigger: you’ve drunk a liquor no one taxes, from Satan’s still. – This nation is inspired by fever and cancer. Invalids and old men are so respectable that they ask to be boiled. – The best thing is to quit this continent where madness prowls, out to supply hostages for these wretches. I will enter the true kingdom of the sons of Cham.

Do I understand nature? Do I understand myself? No more words. I shroud dead men in my stomach…. Shouts, drums, dance, dance, dance! I can’t even imagine the hour when the white men land, and I will fall into nothingness.

Thirst and hunger, shouts, dance, dance, dance!

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The white men are landing. Cannons! Now we must be baptized, get dressed, and go to work.

My heart has been stabbed by grace. Ah! I hadn’t thought this would happen!

But I haven’t done anything wrong. My days will be easy, and I will be spared repentance. I will not have had the torments of the soul half-dead to the Good, where austure light rises again like funeral candles. The fate of a first-born son, a premature coffin covered with shining tears. No doubt, perversion is stupid, vice is stupid; rottenness must always be cast away. But the clock must learn to strike more than hours of pure pain! Am I to be carried away like a child, to play in paradise, forgetting all this misery!

Quick! Are there any other lives? – Sleep for the rich is impossible. Wealth has always lived openly. divine love alone confers the keys of knowledge. I see that nature is only a show of kindness. Farewell chimeras, ideals and errors.

The reasonable song of angels rises from the rescue ship: it is divine love. – Two loves! I may die of earthly love, die of devotion. I have left behind creatures whose grief will grow at my going! You choose me from among the castaways, aren’t those who remain my friends?

Save them!

I am reborn in reason. The world is good. I will bless life. I will love my brothers. There are no longer childhood promises. Nor the hope of escaping old age and death. God is my strength, and I praise God.

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Boredom is no longer my love. Rage, perversion, madness, whose every impulse and disaster I know, – my burden is set down entire. Let us appraise with clear heads the extent of my innocence.

I am no longer able to ask for the consolation of a beating. I don’t imagine I’m off on a honeymoon with Jesus Christ as my father-in-law.

I am no prisoner of my own reason. I have said: God. I want freedom within salvation: how shall I go about it? A taste for frivolity has left me. No further need for divine love or for devotion to duty. I do not regret the age of emotion and feeling. To each his own reason, contempt, Charity: I keep my place at the top of the angelic ladder of good sense.

As for settled happiness, domestic or not… no, I can’t. I am too dissipated, too weak. Work makes life blossom, an old idea, not mine; my life doesn’t weigh enough, it drifts off and floats far beyond action, that third pole of the world.

What an old maid I’m turning into, to lack the courage to love death!

If only God would grant me that celestial calm, etherial calm, and prayer, – like the saints of old. – The Saints! They were strong! Anchorites, artists of a kind we no longer need!

Does this farce have no end? My innocence is enough to make me cry. Life is the farce we all must play.

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Stop it! this is your punishment. – Forward march!

Ah! my lungs burn, my temples roar! Night rolls in my eyes, beneath this sun! My heart… my arms and legs…

Where are we going? To battle? I am weak! the others go on ahead. Tools, weapons… give me time!…

Fire! Fire at me! Here! or I’ll give myself up. – Cowards! – I’ll kill myself! I’ll throw myself beneath the horses’ hooves!

Ah!…

– I’ll get used to it.

That would be the French way, the path of honor!’

Arthur Rimbaud, Mauvais Sang, translated by Paul Schmidt.

A Strange Amalgam

‘There was hardly an eminent writer in Paris who was unacquainted with the inside of the Conciergerie or the Bastille. It was only natural, therefore, that the struggle should have become a highly embittered one, and that at times, in the heat of it, the party whose watchword was a hatred of fanaticism should have grown itself fanatical. But it was clear that the powers of reaction were steadily losing ground; they could only assert themselves spasmodically; their hold upon public opinion was slipping away. Thus the efforts of the band of writers in Paris seemed about to be crowned with success. But this result had not been achieved by their efforts alone. In the midst of the conflict they had received the aid of a powerful auxiliary, who had thrown himself with the utmost vigour into the struggle, and, far as he was from the centre of operations, had assumed supreme command.

It was Voltaire. This great man had now entered upon the final, and by far the most important, period of his astonishing career… Voltaire was now sixty years of age. His position was an enviable one. His reputation was very great, and he had amassed a considerable fortune, which not only assured him complete independence, but enabled him to live in his domains on the large and lavish scale of a country magnate. His residence at Ferney, just on the border of French territory, put him beyond the reach of government interference, while he was yet not too far distant to be out of touch with the capital. Thus the opportunity had at last come for the full display of his powers. And those powers were indeed extraordinary. His character was composed of a strange amalgam of all the most contradictory elements in human nature, and it would be difficult to name a single virtue or a single vice which he did not possess. He was the most egotistical of mortals, and the most disinterested; he was graspingly avaricious, and profusely generous; he was treacherous, mischievous, frivolous, and mean, yet he was a firm friend and a true benefactor, yet he was profoundly serious and inspired by the noblest enthusiasms. Nature had carried these contradictions even into his physical constitution. His health was so bad that he seemed to pass his whole life on the brink of the grave; nevertheless his vitality has probably never been surpassed in the history of the world. Here, indeed, was the one characteristic which never deserted him: he was always active with an insatiable activity; it was always safe to say of him that, whatever else he was, he was not at rest. His long, gaunt body, frantically gesticulating, his skull-like face, with its mobile features twisted into an eternal grin, its piercing eyes sparkling and darting — all this suggested the appearance of a corpse galvanized into an incredible animation. But in truth it was no dead ghost that inhabited this strange tenement, but the fierce and powerful spirit of an intensely living man.’

Lytton Strachey, Landmarks in French Literature.

 

‘In summoning Napoleon Bonaparte to their aid in Brumaire, Sieyes and his fellow-conspirators had hoped, like Barere in Thermidor, to keep the political controls firmly in their hands… But, this time, the man selected for the job was of a different stamp and temperament from any other called upon to fill the role; and far from retaining control of the situation, the Brumairians were soon to find that their would-be auxiliary was fully determined t o impose his own pattern on events: he would, in fact, by an unusual combination of will, intellect and physical vigour, leave his mark for years to come on France and Europe. Yet, in so far as it possible to separate reality from myth in so remarkable a phenomenon, he was a man of strange paradoxes and contradictions: a modern romantic hero cast in the mould of a Cæsar or an Alexander; a man of action and rapid decision, yet a poet and dreamer of world conquest; a supreme political realist, yet a vulgar adventurer who gambled for high stakes; the enemy of privilege who boasted of his “uncle” Louis XVI and aspired to found new dynasties of Kings; an organizer and statesman of genius, and yet as much concerned to feather the nests of the Bonaparte clan as to promote the fortunes or greater glory of France; a product of the Enlightenment who distrusted ideas and despised intellectuals and “systems”; a lucid intellect with a vast thirst and capacity for knowledge, yet strangely impervious to forces that he had himself helped to unleash.  And greatest paradox of all: the upstart “soldier of the Revolution” who carried the “principles of 1789” to half the countries of Europe, and who yet was driven by personal ambition and contempt for his fellow-men to build a new despotism and new aristocracy on the ashes of the old.’

George Rude, Revolutionary Europe, 1783-1815.

From Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion

The character of Charles I:

‘To speak first of his private qualifications as a man, before the mention of his princely and royal virtues; he was, if ever any, the most worthy of the title of an honest man; so great a lover of justice, that no temptation could dispose him to a wrongful action, except it was so disguised to him that he believed it to be just. He had a tenderness and compassion of nature, which restrained him from ever doing a hardhearted thing; and therefore he was so apt to grant pardon to malefactors, that the judges of the land represented to him the damage and insecurity to the public, that flowed from such his indulgence. And then he restrained himself from pardoning either murders or highway robberies, and quickly discerned the fruits of his severity by a wonderful reformation of those enormities. He was very punctual and regular in his devotions; he was never known to enter upon his recreations or sports, though never so early in the morning, before he had been at public prayers; so that on hunting days his chaplains were bound to a very early attendance. He was likewise very strict in observing the hours of his private cabinet devotions; and was so severe an exactor of gravity and reverence in all mention of religion, that he could never endure any light or profane word, with what sharpness of wit soever it was covered; and though he was well pleased and delighted with reading verses made upon any occasion, no man durst bring before him any thing that was profane or unclean. That kind of wit had never any countenance then. He was so great an example of conjugal affection, that they who did not imitate him in that particular did not brag of their liberty; and he did not only permit, but direct his bishops to prosecute those scandalous vices, in the ecclesiastical courts, against persons of eminence, and near relation to his service.

His kingly virtues had some mixture and alloy, that hindered them from shining in full lustre, and from producing those fruits they should have been attended with. He was not in his nature very bountiful, though he gave very much. This appeared more after the Duke of Buckingham’s death, after which those showers fell very rarely; and he paused too long in giving, which made those, to whom he gave, less sensible of the benefit. He kept state to the full, which made his court very orderly; no man presuming to be seen in a place where he had no pretence to be. He saw and observed men long, before he received them about his person; and did not love strangers; nor very confident men. He was a patient hearer of causes; which he frequently accustomed himself to at the council board, and judged very well, and was dexterous in the mediating part; so that he often put an end to causes by persuasion, which the stubbornness of men’s humours made dilatory in courts of justice.

He was very fearless in his person; but not very enterprising. He had an excellent understanding, but was not confident enough of it; which made him oftentimes change his own opinion for a worse, and follow the advice of men that did not judge so well as himself. This made him more irresolute than the conjuncture of his affairs would admit; if he had been of a rougher and more imperious nature he would have found more respect and duty. And his not applying some severe cures to approaching evils proceeded from the lenity of his nature, and the tenderness of his conscience, which, in all cases of blood, made him choose the softer way, and not hearken to severe counsels, how reasonably soever urged. This only restrained him from pursuing his advantage in the first Scottish expedition, when, humanly speaking, he might have reduced that nation to the most slavish obedience that could have been wished. But no man can say he had then many who advised him to it, but the contrary, by a wonderful indisposition all his council had to fighting, or any other fatigue. He was always an immoderate lover of the Scottish nation, having not only been born there, but educated by that people, and besieged by them always, having few English about him till he was king; and the major number of his servants being still of that nation, who he thought could never fail him. And among these, no man had such an ascendant over him, by the humblest insinuations, as Duke Hamilton had.

As he excelled in all other virtues, so in temperance he was so strict, that he abhorred all debauchery to that degree, that, at a great festival solemnity, where he once was, when very many of the nobility of the English and Scots were entertained, being told by one who withdrew from thence, what vast draughts of wine they drank, and “that there was one earl, who had drank most of the rest down, and was not himself moved or altered,” the king said “that he deserved to be hanged”; and that earl coming shortly after into the room where his majesty was, in some gaiety, to show how unhurt he was from that battle, the king sent one to bid him withdraw from his majesty’s presence; nor did he in some days after appear before him.

So many miraculous circumstances contributed to his ruin, that men might well think that heaven and earth and the stars designed it. Though he was, from the first declension of his power, so much betrayed by his own servants, that there were very few who remained faithful to him; yet that treachery proceeded not from any treasonable purpose to do him any harm, but from particular and personal animosities against other men. And, afterwards, the terror all men were under of the parliament, and the guilt they were conscious of themselves, made them watch all opportunities to make themselves gracious to those who could do them good; and so they became spies upon their master, and from one piece of knavery were hardened and confirmed to undertake another; till at last they had no other hope of preservation but by the destruction of their master. And after all this, when a man might reasonably believe that less than a universal defection of three nations could not have reduced a great king to so ugly a fate, it is most certain that, in that very hour when he was thus wickedly murdered in the sight of the sun, he had as great a share in the hearts and affections of his subjects in general, was as much beloved, esteemed, and longed for by the people in general of the three nations, as any of his predecessors had ever been. To conclude, he was the worthiest gentleman, the best master, the best friend, the best husband, the best father, and the best Christian that the age in which he lived produced. And if he were not the best king, if he were without some parts and qualities which have made some kings great and happy, no other prince was ever unhappy who was possessed of half his virtues and endowments, and so much without any kind of vice.’

The character of Cromwell:

‘He was one of those men, quos vituperate ne inimici quidem possunt, nisi ut simul laudent;… for he could never have done half that mischief without great parts of Courage, Industry, and Judgement. He must have had a wonderful understanding in the natures and humours of men, and as great a dexterity in applying them; who, from a private and obscure birth (though of a good family) without interest or estate, alliance or friendship, could raise himself to such a height, and compound and knead such opposite and contradictory tempers, humours, and interests into a consistence, that contributed to his designs, and to their own destruction; whilst himself grew insensibly powerful enough to cut off those by whom he had climbed, in the instant that they projected to demolish their own building. What was said of Cinna may very justly be said of him, ausum eum, quae nemo auderet bonus: perfecisse, quae a nullo, nisi fortissitno perfici possunt.. . Without doubt, no man with more wickedness ever attempted any thing, or brought to pass what he desired more wickedly, more in the face and contempt of Religion, and moral Honesty; yet wickedness as great as his could never have accomplished those designs, without the assistance of a great spirit, an admirable circumspection, and sagacity, and a most magnanimous resolution.

When he appeared first in the parliament, he seemed to have a person in no degree gracious, no ornament of discourse, none of those talents which use to conciliate the affections of the stander by: yet as he grew into place and authority, his parts seemed to be raised, as if he had concealed faculties, till he had occasion to use them; and when he was to act the part of a great man, he did it without any indecency, notwithstanding the want of custom.

After he was confirmed and invested Protector by the humble Petition and Advice, he consulted with very few upon any action of importance, nor communicated any enterprise he resolved upon, with more than those who were to have principal parts in the execution of it; nor with them sooner than was absolutely necessary. What he once resolved, in which he was not rash, he would not be dissuaded from, nor endure any contradiction of his power and authority; but extorted obedience from them who were not willing to yield it.

[He] was not so far a Man of blood, as to follow Machiavel’s method; which prescribes upon a total alteration of Government, as a thing absolutely necessary, to cut off all the heads of those, and extirpate their families, who are friends to the old one. It was confidently reported that, in the Council of Officers, it was more than once proposed, ‘that there might be a general massacre of all the Royal Party, as the only expedient to secure the government’, but that Cromwell would never consent to it; it may be, out of too much contempt of his enemies. In a word, as he was guilty of many crimes against which damnation is denounced, and for which Hell-fire is prepared, so he had some good qualities which have caused the memory of some men in all ages to be celebrated; and he will be looked upon by posterity as a brave wicked man.’

Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars.

Fitted for a Place, and Subordinated to a Purpose

‘In passing from the drama to sculpture we make a great leap. We pass from the living thing, the dance or the play acted by real people, the thing done, whether as ritual or art, whether dromenon or drama, to the thing made, cast in outside material rigid form, a thing that can be looked at again and again, but the making of which can never actually be re-lived whether by artist or spectator.

Moreover, we come to a clear threefold distinction and division hitherto neglected. We must at last sharply differentiate the artist, the work of art, and the spectator. The artist may, and usually indeed does, become the spectator of his own work, but the spectator is not the artist. The work of art is, once executed, forever distinct both from artist and spectator. In the primitive choral dance all three–artist, work of art, spectator–were fused, or rather not yet differentiated. Hand-books on art are apt to begin with the discussion of rude decorative patterns, and after leading up through sculpture and painting, something vague is said at the end about the primitiveness of the ritual dance. But historically and also genetically or logically the dance in its inchoateness, its undifferentiatedness, comes first. It has in it a larger element of emotion, and less of presentation. It is this inchoateness, this undifferentiatedness, that, apart from historical fact, makes us feel sure that logically the dance is primitive.

To illustrate the meaning of Greek sculpture and show its close affinity with ritual, we shall take two instances, perhaps the best-known of those that survive, one of them in relief, the other in the round, the Panathenaic frieze of the Parthenon at Athens and the Apollo Belvedere, and we shall take them in chronological order. As the actual frieze and the statue cannot be before us, we shall discuss no technical questions of style or treatment, but simply ask how they came to be, what human need do they express. […]

The Panathenaic frieze once decorated the cella or innermost shrine of the Parthenon, the temple of the Maiden Goddess Athena. It twined like a ribbon round the brow of the building and thence it was torn by Lord Elgin and brought home to the British Museum as a national trophy, for the price of a few hundred pounds of coffee and yards of scarlet cloth. To realize its meaning we must always think it back into its place. Inside the cella, or shrine, dwelt the goddess herself, her great image in gold and ivory; outside the shrine was sculptured her worship by the whole of her people. For the frieze is nothing but a great ritual procession translated into stone, the Panathenaic procession, or procession of all the Athenians, of all Athens, in honour of the goddess who was but the city incarnate, Athena.

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Sculptural Art, at least in this instance, comes out of ritual, has ritual as its subject, is embodied ritual. […] Practically the whole of the reliefs that remain to us from the archaic period, and a very large proportion of those at later date, when they do not represent heroic mythology, are ritual reliefs, “votive” reliefs as we call them; that is, prayers or praises translated into stone.’

Jane Ellen Harrison, Ancient Art and Ritual.

 

‘With all our talk about it, the very meaning of the words “Decorative art” remains confused and undecided. I want, if possible, to settle this question for you to-night, and to show you that the principles on which you must work are likely to be false, in proportion as they are narrow; true, only as they are founded on a perception of the connection of all branches of art with each other.

Observe, then, first—the only essential distinction between Decorative and other art is the being fitted for a fixed place; and in that place, related, either in subordination or command, to the effect of other pieces of art. And all the greatest art which the world has produced is thus fitted for a place, and subordinated to a purpose. There is no existing highest-order art but is decorative. The best sculpture yet produced has been the decoration of a temple front—the best painting, the decoration of a room. Raphael’s best doing is merely the wall-colouring of a suite of apartments in the Vatican, and his cartoons were made for tapestries. Correggio’s best doing is the decoration of two small church cupolas at Parma; Michael Angelo’s of a ceiling in the Pope’s private chapel; Tintoret’s, of a ceiling and side wall belonging to a charitable society at Venice; while Titian and Veronese threw out their noblest thoughts, not even on the inside, but on the outside of the common brick and plaster walls of Venice.

Get rid, then, at once of any idea of Decorative art being a degraded or a separate kind of art. Its nature or essence is simply its being fitted for a definite place; and, in that place, forming part of a great and harmonious whole, in companionship with other art; and so far from this being a degradation to it—so far from Decorative art being inferior to other art because it is fixed to a spot—on the whole it may be considered as rather a piece of degradation that it should be portable. Portable art—independent of all place—is for the most part ignoble art.’

John Ruskin, The Two Paths, ‘Modern Manufacture and Design: A Lecture delivered at Bradford, March, 1859’.

Inducements to Formal Elaboration and Elegance

 

‘The problem with us is not only prodigal extravagance but also an assumed limitlessness. We have obscured the issue by refusing to see that limitlessness is a godly trait. We have insistently, and with relief, defined ourselves as animals or as “higher animals.” But to define ourselves as animals, given our specifically human powers and desires, is to define ourselves as limitless animals—which of course is a contradiction in terms. Any definition is a limit, which is why the God of Exodus refuses to define Himself: “I am that I am.”

[…]

[Our] human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure—in addition to its difficulties—that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.’

Wendell Berry, ‘Faustian Economics’, Harper’s Magazine 2008.

 

‘Here is the root of all romanticism: that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir of possibilities; and if you can so rearrange society by the destruction of oppressive order then these possibilities will have a chance and you will get Progress.

One can define the classical quite clearly as the exact opposite to this. Man is an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organisation that anything decent can be got out of him.

[…]

I must now shirk the difficulty of saying exactly what I mean by romantic and classical in verse. I can only say that it means the result of these two attitudes towards the cosmos, towards man, in so far as it gets reflected in verse. The romantic, because he thinks man infinite, must always be talking about the infinite; and as there is always the bitter contrast between what you think you ought to be able to do and what man actually can, it always tends, in its later stages at any rate, to be gloomy. I really can’t go any further than to say it is the reflection of these two temperaments, and point out examples of the different spirits. On the one hand I would take such diverse people as Horace, most of the Elizabethans and the writers of the Augustan age, and on the other side Lamartine, Hugo, parts of Keats, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Swinburne.’

T. E. Hulme, Romanticism and Classicism.

 

‘The literary artist is of necessity a scholar. […] For the material in which he works is no more a creation of his own than the sculptor’s marble. Product of a myriad various minds and contending tongues, compact of obscure and minute association, a language has its own abundant and often recondite laws, in the habitual and summary recognition of which scholarship consists. A writer, full of a matter he is before all things anxious to express, may think of those laws, the limitations of vocabulary, structure, and the like, as a restriction, but if a real artist will find in them an opportunity. His punctilious observance of the proprieties of his medium will diffuse through all he writes a general air of sensibility, of refined usage. Exclusiones debitae—the exclusions, or rejections, which nature demands—we know how large a part these play, according to Bacon, in the science of nature. In a somewhat changed sense, we might say that the art of the scholar is summed up in the observance of those rejections demanded by the nature of his medium, the material he must use. Alive to the value of an atmosphere in which every term finds its utmost degree of expression, and with all the jealousy of a lover of words, he will resist a constant tendency on the part of the majority of those who use them to efface the distinctions of language, the facility of writers often reinforcing in this respect the work of the vulgar. He will feel the obligation not of the laws only, but of those affinities, avoidances, those mere preferences, of his language, which through the associations of literary history have become a part of its nature, prescribing the rejection of many a neology, many a license, many a gipsy phrase which might present itself as actually expressive. His appeal, again, is to the scholar, who has great experience in literature, and will show no favour to short-cuts, or hackneyed illustration, or an affectation of learning designed for the unlearned. Hence a contention, a sense of self-restraint and renunciation, having for the susceptible reader the effect of a challenge for minute consideration; the attention of the writer, in every minutest detail, being a pledge that it is worth the reader’s while to be attentive too, that the writer is dealing scrupulously with his instrument, and therefore, indirectly, with the reader himself also, that he has the science of the instrument he plays on, perhaps, after all, with a freedom which in such case will be the freedom of a master.

For meanwhile, braced only by those restraints, he is really vindicating his liberty in the making of a vocabulary, an entire system of composition, for himself, his own true manner; and when we speak of the manner of a true master we mean what is essential in his art. Pedantry being only the scholarship of le cuistre (we have no English equivalent) he is no pedant, and does but show his intelligence of the rules of language in his freedoms with it, addition or expansion, which like the spontaneities of manner in a well-bred person will still further illustrate good taste.—The right vocabulary! Translators have not invariably seen how all-important that is in the work of translation, driving for the most part at idiom or construction; whereas, if the original be first-rate, one’s first care should be with its elementary particles, Plato, for instance, being often reproducible by an exact following, with no variation in structure, of word after word, as the pencil follows a drawing under tracing-paper, so only each word or syllable be not of false colour, to change my illustration a little.’

Walter Horatio Pater, Appreciations, With An Essay on Style.

 

‘The narrowed and selective nature of Molière’s treatment of character presents an illuminating contrast when compared with the elaborately detailed method of such a master of the romantic style as Shakespeare. The English dramatist shows his persons to us in the round; innumerable facets flash out quality after quality; the subtlest and most elusive shades of temperament are indicated; until at last the whole being takes shape before us, endowed with what seems to be the very complexity and mystery of life itself. Entirely different is the great Frenchman’s way. Instead of expanding, he deliberately narrows his view; he seizes upon two or three salient qualities in a character and then uses all his art to impress them indelibly upon our minds. His Harpagon is a miser, and he is old — and that is all we know about him: how singularly limited a presentment compared with that of Shakespeare’s bitter, proud, avaricious, vindictive, sensitive, and almost pathetic Jew! Tartufe, perhaps the greatest of all Molière’s characters, presents a less complex figure even than such a slight sketch as Shakespeare’s Malvolio. Who would have foreseen Malvolio’s exquisitely preposterous address to Jove? In Tartufe there are no such surprises. He displays three qualities, and three only — religious hypocrisy, lasciviousness, and the love of power; and there is not a word that he utters which is not impregnated with one or all of these. Beside the vast elaboration of a Falstaff he seems, at first sight, hardly more solid than some astounding silhouette; yet — such was the power and intensity of Molière’s art — the more we look, the more difficult we shall find it to be certain that Tartufe is a less tremendous creation even than Falstaff himself.

For, indeed, it is in his characters that Molière’s genius triumphs most. His method is narrow, but it is deep. He rushes to the essentials of a human being — tears out his vitals, as it were — and, with a few repeated master-strokes, transfixes the naked soul.

[…]

‘Comprehension’ might be taken as the watchword of the Elizabethans; Racine’s was ‘concentration’. His great aim was to produce, not an extraordinary nor a complex work of art, but a flawless one; he wished to be all matter and no impertinency. His conception of a drama was of something swift, simple, inevitable; an action taken at the crisis, with no redundancies however interesting, no complications however suggestive, no irrelevances however beautiful — but plain, intense, vigorous, and splendid with nothing but its own essential force.’

Lytton Strachey, Landmarks in French Literature.

 

‘[Thierry Maulnier] argues, like Lasserre, for an understanding of French classicism that can be reconciled to Nietzsche… His early book on Nietzsche , for instance, presents a figure whose commitment to the Dionysian future, wholly against the spirit of the time, goes so far as to make him “his own hangman.” Maulnier reinterprets Nietzsche’s heroic refusal of modernity as a cult of individual sacrifice to the community to come. Maulnier’s Racine also reveals life’s violence and horror… It follows that Racine’s classicist formalism, his obedience to Aristotelian rules, is not to be considered a “restraint” but rather as a literary technique for representing fatedness, once more as a formal expression of a primordial will to sacrifice and loss… Racine shows that what “the stupid adorers of French clarity and order” suppose classicism to be is exactly what it is not… Rather, it is an assimilation of order by instinct, “an atavistic conjuring between perfection and spontaneity.”‘

Simon During, Against Democracy: Literary Experience in the Era of Emancipations.

Contrary to the Ordinary Way of the World

‘And in general Cato esteemed the customs and manners of men at that time so corrupt, and a reformation in them so necessary, that he thought it requisite, in many things, to go contrary to the ordinary way of the world. Seeing the lightest and gayest purple was then most in fashion, he would always wear that which was the nearest black; and he would often go out of doors, after his morning meal, without either shoes or tunic; not that he sought vain-glory from such novelties, but he would accustom himself to be ashamed only of what deserves shame, and to despise all other sorts of disgrace.’

Plutarch, ‘Life of Cato the Younger’, Parallel Lives, translated by John Dryden.

 

”Dishonour is what becomes a poet, not titles or acclaim.’

She looked startled, not perhaps so much at what he’d said as at his expressing an opinion at all.

‘What makes you say that, Luke?’ What indeed! Feelings and instincts were stirring to become thoughts so that he could express what was bursting to be said.

‘A poet must be contercurrent to the flow around him. That’s what poetry is: the other way of feeling and looking at the world. There’s the world as it is, I mean everything that keeps most people content and busy, becoming whatever they can – doctors lawyers, politicians, priests, tradesmen, and so on, and as well, of course, husbands and wives with families. And however much they may disagree over things like politics or religion, they’re all intent in keeping the whole thing intact and functioning.”

Francis Stuart, Black List, Section H.

 

‘Faith embraces many apparently contradictory truths, ‘a time to weep and a time to laugh,’ etc., ‘answer, answer not.’ The origin of this is in the union of the two natures in Christ. And also the two new worlds. The creation of a new heaven and a new earth. New life, new death. Everything duplicated and the same names remaining. And finally the two men who are in the righteous. For they are the two worlds, and a member and image of Christ. Thus all the names fit them: righteous sinners; living dead; dead living; reprobate elect, etc.’

Blaise Pascal, Pensées, translated by A. J. Krailsheimer.

The Common Privileges of Transcribing from Others, and Digressing from Himself

‘I have sometimes heard of an Iliad in a nutshell; but it has been my fortune to have much oftener seen a nutshell in an Iliad. There is no doubt that human life has received most wonderful advantages from both; but to which of the two the world is chiefly indebted, I shall leave among the curious, as a problem worthy of their utmost inquiry. For the invention of the latter, I think the commonwealth of learning is chiefly obliged to the great modern improvement of digressions: the late refinements in knowledge running parallel to those of diet in our nation, which, among men of a judicious taste, are dressed up in various compounds, consisting in soups and olios, fricassees, and ragouts.

It is true, there is a sort of morose, detracting, ill-bred people, who pretend utterly to disrelish these polite innovations; and as to the similitude from diet, they allow the parallel, but are so bold [as] to pronounce the example itself a corruption and degeneracy of taste. They tell us that the fashion of jumbling fifty things together in a dish was at first introduced in compliance to a depraved and debauched appetite as well as to a crazy constitution: and to see a man hunting through an olio after the head and brains of a goose, a widgeon, or a woodcock, is a sign he wants a stomach and digestion for more substantial victuals. Farther, they affirm that digressions in a book are like foreign troops in a state, which argue the nation to want a heart and hands of its own, and often either subdue the natives, or drive them into the most unfruitful corners.

But, after all that can be objected by these supercilious censors, it is manifest the society of writers would quickly be reduced to a very inconsiderable number, if men were put upon making books, with the fatal confinement of delivering nothing beyond what is to the purpose. It is acknowledged, that were the case the same among us as with the Greeks and Romans, when learning was in its cradle, to be reared and fed and clothed by invention; it would be an easy task to fill up volumes upon particular occasions, without farther expatiating from the subjects than by moderate excursions, helping to advance or clear the main design. But with knowledge it has fared as with a numerous army, encamped in a fruitful country; which, for a few days, maintains itself by the product of the soil it is on; till, provisions being spent, they send to forage many a mile, among friends or enemies, it matters not. Meanwhile the neighbouring fields, trampled and beaten down, become barren and dry affording no sustenance but clouds of dust.

The whole course of things being thus entirely changed between us and the ancients, and the moderns wisely sensible of it, we of this age have discovered a shorter and more prudent method, to become scholars and wits, without the fatigue of reading or of thinking. The most accomplished way of using books at present is two-fold: either, first, to serve them as some men do lords, learn their titles exactly, and then brag of their acquaintance; or secondly, which is indeed the choicer, the profounder, and politer method, to get a thorough insight into the index, by which the whole book is governed and turned, like fishes by the tail. For to enter the palace of learning at the great gate requires an expense of time and forms; therefore men of much haste and little ceremony are content to get in by the back door. For the arts are all in a flying march, and therefore more easily subdued by attacking them in the rear. Thus physicians discover the state of the whole body, by consulting only what comes from behind. Thus men catch knowledge by throwing their wit on the posteriors of a book, as boys do sparrows with flinging salt upon their tails. Thus human life is best understood by the wise man’s rule of regarding the end. Thus are the sciences found like Hercules’s oxen, by tracing them backwards. Thus are old sciences unravelled, like old stockings, by beginning at the foot.

Besides all this, the army of the sciences has been of late, with a world of martial discipline, drawn into its close order, so that a view or a muster may be taken of it with abundance of expedition. For this great blessing we are wholly indebted to systems and abstracts, in which the modern fathers of learning, like prudent usurers, spent their sweat for the ease of us their children. For labour is the seed of idleness, and it is the peculiar happiness of our noble age to gather the fruit.

Now, the method of growing wise, learned, and sublime, having become so regular an affair, and so established in all its forms; the numbers of writers must needs have increased accordingly, and to a pitch that has made it of absolute necessity for them to interfere continually with each other. Besides, it is reckoned that there is not at this present a sufficient quantity of new matter left in nature to furnish and adorn any one particular subject to the extent of a volume. This I am told by a very skilful computer, who has given a full demonstration of it from rules of arithmetic.

This perhaps may be objected against by those who maintain the infinity of matter, and therefore will not allow that any species of it can be exhausted. For answer to which, let us examine the noblest branch of modern wit or invention planted and cultivated by the present age, and which of all others has borne the most and the fairest fruit. For though some remains of it were left us by the ancients, yet have not any of those, as I remember, been translated or compiled, into systems for modern use. Therefore we may affirm, to our own honour, that it has, in some sort, been both invented and brought to a perfection by the same hands. What I mean is that highly celebrated talent among the modern wits of deducing similitudes, allusions, and applications, very surprising, agreeable, and apposite, from the pudenda of either sex, together with their proper uses. And truly, having observed how little invention bears any vogue, besides what is derived into these channels, I have sometimes had a thought that the happy genius of our age and country was prophetically held forth by that ancient typical description of the Indian pigmies, whose stature did not exceed above two foot; sed quorum pudenda crassa, et ad talos usque pertingentia. Now, I have been very curious to inspect the late productions wherein the beauties of this kind have most prominently appeared; and although this vein has bled so freely, and all endeavours have been used in the power of human breath to dilate, extend, and keep it open; like the Scythians, who had a custom, and an instrument, to blow up the privities of their mares, that they might yield the more milk: yet I am under an apprehension it is near growing dry, and past all recovery; and that either some new fonde of wit should if possible be provided, or else that we must e’en be content with repetition here, as well as upon all other occasions.

This will stand as an uncontestable argument, that our modem wits are not to reckon upon the infinity of matter for a constant supply. What remains therefore, but that our last recourse must be had to large indexes, and little compendiums? quotations must be plentifully gathered, and booked in alphabet; to this end, though authors need be little consulted, yet critics, and commentators, and lexicons carefully must. But, above all, those judicious collectors of bright parts, and flowers, and observandas, are to be nicely dwelt on; by some called the sieves and boulters of learning, though it is left undetermined whether they dealt in pearls or meal, and consequently, whether we are more to value that which passed through, or what stayed behind.

By these methods, in a few weeks, there starts up many a writer capable of managing the profoundest and most universal subjects. For what though his head be empty, provided his common-place-book be full? and if you will bate him but the circumstances of method, and style, and grammar, and invention; allow him but the common privileges of transcribing from others, and digressing from himself, as often as he shall see occasion; he will desire no more ingredients towards fitting up a treatise that shall make a very comely figure on a bookseller’s shelf; there to be preserved neat and clean for a long eternity, adorned with the heraldry of its title fairly inscribed on a label; never to be thumbed or greased by students, nor bound to everlasting chains of darkness in a library: but when the fullness of time is come, shall happily undergo the trial of purgatory, in order to ascend the sky.

Without these allowances, how is it possible we modern wits should ever have an opportunity to introduce our collections, listed under so many thousand heads of a different nature; for want of which the learned world would be deprived of infinite delight, as well as instruction, and we ourselves buried beyond redress in an inglorious and undistinguished oblivion?

From such elements as these, I am alive to behold the day wherein the corporation of authors can outvie all its brethren in the guild. A happiness derived to us with a great many others, from our Scythian ancestors, among whom the number of pens was so infinite, that the Grecian eloquence had no other way of expressing it than by saying that in the regions far to the north it was hardly possible for a man to travel, the very air was so replete with feathers.

The necessity of this digression will easily excuse the length; and I have chosen for it as proper a place as I could readily find. If the judicious reader can assign a fitter, I do here impower him to remove it into any other corner he pleases. And so I return with great alacrity to pursue a more important concern.’

Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub.

 

‘And touching bookes: historie is my chiefe studie, poesie my only delight, to which I am particularly affected: for as Cleanthes said, that as the voice being forciblie pent in the narrow gullet of a trumpet, at last issueth forth more strong and shriller , so me seemes, that a sentence cunningly and closely couched in measure-keeping Posie, darts it selfe forth more furiously, and wounds me even to the quicke. And concerning the naturall faculties that are in me (whereof behold here an essay). I perceive them to faint under their owne burthen; my conceits, and my judgement march but uncertaine, and as it were groping, staggering, and stumbling at every rush: And when I have gone as far as I can, I have no whit pleased my selfe: for the further I saile the more land I descrie, and that so dimmed with fogges, and overcast with clouds, that my sight is so weakened, I cannot distinguish the same.

And then undertaking to speake indifferently of all that presents it selfe unto my fantasie, and having nothing put mine owne naturall meanes to imploy therein, if it be my hap (as commonly it is) among good Authors, to light upon those verie places which I have undertaken to treat off, as even now I did in Plutarke, reading his discourse of the power of imagination, wherein in regard of those wise men, I acknowledge my selfe so weake and so poore, so dull and grose-headed, as I am forced both to pittie and disdaine my selfe, yet am I pleased with this; that my opinions have often the grace to jump with theirs, and that I follow them a loofe-off, and thereby possesse at least, that which all other men have not; which is, that I know the utmost difference between them and my selfe: all which notwithstanding, I suffer my inventions to run abroad, as weake and faint as I have produced them, without bungling and botching the faults which this comparison hath discovered to me in them. A man had need have a stronge backe, to undertake to march foot to foot with these kind of men. The indiscreet writers of our age, amidst their triviall compositions, intermingle and wrest in whole sentences taken from ancient Authors, supposing by such filching-theft to purchase honour and reputation to themselves, doe cleane contrarie. For, this infinite varietie and dissemblance of lustres, makes a face so wan, so ill-favored, and so uglie, in respect of theirs, that they lose much more than gaine thereby.

These were two contrarie humours: The Philosopher Chrisippus was wont to foist-in amongst his bookes, not only whole sentences and other long-long discourses, but whole bookes of other Authors, as in one, he brought inEuripides his Medea. And Apollodorus was wont to say of him, that if one should draw from out his bookes what he had stolne from others, his paper would remaine blanke. Whereas Epicurus cleane contrarie to him in three hundred volumes he left behind him, had not made use of one allegation.

It was my fortune not long since to light upon such a place: I had languishingly traced after some French words, so naked and hollow, and so void either of sense or matter, that at last I found them to be nought but meere French words; and after a tedious and wearisome travell, I chanced to stumble upon an highe riche and even to the clouds-raised piece, the descent whereof had it been somewhat more pleasant or easie, or the ascent reaching a little further, it had been excusablee and to be borne with-all; but it was such a steepie downe-fall, and by meere strength hewen out of the maine rocke, that by reading of the first six words, me thought I was carried into another world: whereby I perceive the bottome whence I came to be so low and deep, as I durst never more adventure to go through ; for, if I did stuffe any one of my discourses with those rich spoiles, it would manifestly cause the sottishnesse of others to appeare. To reprove mine owne faults in others, seemes to me no more insufferable than to reprehend (as I doe often) those of others in my selfe: They ought to be accused every where, and have all places of Sanctuarie taken from them; yet do I know how over boldly, at all times I adventure to equall my selfe unto my filchings, and so march hand in hand with them, not without a fond hardie hope, that I may perhaps be able to bleare the eyes of the Judges from discerning them. But it is as much for the benefit of my application, as for the good of my invention and force. And I doe not furiously front, and bodie to bodie wrestle with those old champions: it is but by flights, advantages, and false offers I seek to come within them, and if I can, to give them a fall. I do not rashly take them about the necke, I doe but touch them, nor doe I go so far as by my bargains I would seeme to doe; could I but keepe even with them, I should then be an honest man; for I seek not to venture on them, but where they are strongest.

To doe as I have seen some, that is, to shroud themselves under other armes, not daring so much as to show their fingers ends unarmed and to botch up all their works (as it is an easie matter in a common subject, namely for the wiser sort) with ancient inventions, here and there hudled up together. And in those who endeavoured to hide what they have filched from others, and make it their owne, it is first a manifest note of injustice, then a plaine argument of cowardlinesse; who having nothing of any worth in themselves to make show of, will yet under the countenance of others sufficiencie goe about to make a faire offer: Moreover (oh great foolishnesse) to seek by such cosening tricks to forestall the ignorant approbation of the common sort, nothing fearing to discover their ignorance to men of understanding (whose praise only is of value) who will soon trace out such borrowed ware. As for me, there is nothing I will doe lesse. I never speake of others, but that I may the more speake of my selfe.

This concerneth not those mingle-mangles of many kinds of stuffe, or as the Grecians call them Rapsodies, that for such are published, of which kind I have (since I came to yeares of discretion seen divers most ingenious and wittie; amongst others, one under the name of Capilupus; besides many of the ancient stampe. These are wits of such excellence, as both here and elsewhere they will soone be perceived, as our late famous writer Lipsius, in his learned and laborious work of the Politikes: yet whatsoever come of it, for so much as they are but follies, my intent is not to smother them no more than a bald and hoarie picture of mine, where a Painter hath drawne not a perfect visage, but mine owne. For, howsoever, these are but my humors and opinions, and I deliver them but to show what my conceit is, and not what ought to be beleeved. Wherein I ayme at nothing but to display my selfe, who peradventure (if a new prentiship change me) shall be another to morrow.’

Michel de Montaigne, ‘On the Education of Children’, Essays, translated by John Florio.

 

The Brain, in its Natural Position and State

‘Sometimes, when I set to thinking about the various activities of men, the dangers and troubles which they face at Court, or in war, giving rise to so many quarrels and passions, daring and often wicked enterprises and so on, I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to be quiet in his room.  A man wealthy enough for life’s needs would never leave home to go to sea or besiege some fortress if he knew how to stay at home and enjoy it.  Men would never spend so much on a commission in the army if they could bear living in town all their lives, and they only seek after the company and diversion of gambling because they do not enjoy staying at home.

[…]

That is all that men have been able to devise for attaining happiness; those who philosophize about it, holding that people are quite unreasonable to spend all day chasing a hare that they would not have wanted to buy, have little knowledge of our nature. The hare itself would not save us from thinking about death and the miseries distracting us, but hunting it does so. Thus when Pyrrhus was advised to take the rest towards which he was so strenuously striving, he found it very hard to do.

Telling a man to rest is the same as telling him to live happily. It means advising him to enjoy a completely happy state which he can contemplate at leisure without cause for distress. It means not understanding nature.’

Blaise Pascal, Pensées, translated by A. J. Krailsheimer.

 

‘Let us next examine the great introducers of new schemes in philosophy, and search till we can find from what faculty of the soul the disposition arises in mortal man of taking it into his head to advance new systems, with such an eager zeal, in things agreed on all hands  impossible to be known: from what seeds this disposition springs, and to what quality of human nature these grand innovators have been indebted for their number of disciples. Because it is plain that several of the chief among them, both ancient and modern, were usually mistaken by their adversaries, and indeed by all except their own followers, to have been persons crazed, or out of their wits; having generally proceeded, in the common course of their words and actions, by a method very different from the vulgar dictates of unrefined reason; agreeing for the most part in their several models with their present undoubted successors in the academy of modern Bedlam; whose merits and principles I shall farther examine in due place. Of this kind were Epicurus, Diogenes, Apollonius, Lucretius, Paracelsus, Descartes, and others; who, if they were now in the world, tied fast, and separate from their followers, would, in this our undistinguishing age, incur manifest danger of phlebotomy, and whips, and chains, and dark chambers, and straw. For what man, in the natural state or course of thinking, did ever conceive it in his power to reduce the notions of all mankind exactly to the same length, and breadth, and height of his own? yet this is the first humble and civil design of all innovators in the empire of reason. Epicurus modestly hoped that, one time or other, a certain fortuitous concourse of all men’s opinions, after perpetual justlings, the sharp with the smooth, the light and the heavy, the round and the square, would by certain clinamina unite in the notions of atoms and void, as these did in the originals of all things. Cartesius reckoned to see, before he died, the sentiments of all philosophers, like so many lesser stars in his romantic system, wrapped and drawn within his own vortex. Now, I would gladly be informed how it is possible to account for such imaginations as these in particular men, without recourse to my phenomenon of vapours ascending from the lower faculties to overshadow the brain, and there distilling into conceptions for which the narrowness of our mother-tongue has not yet assigned any other name, besides that of madness or phrenzy. Let us therefore now conjecture how it comes to pass that none of these great prescribers do ever fail providing themselves and their notions with a number of implicit disciples. And I think the reason is easy to be assigned: for there is a peculiar string in the harmony of human understanding, which in several individuals is exactly of the same tuning. This, if you can dexterously screw up to its right key, and then strike gently upon it; whenever you have the good fortune to light among those of the same pitch, they will, by a secret necessary sympathy, strike exactly at the same time. And in this one circumstance lies all the skill or luck of the matter; for if you chance to jar the string among those who are either above or below your own height, instead of subscribing to your doctrine, they will tie you fast, call you mad, and feed you with bread and water. It is therefore a point of the nicest conduct to distinguish and adapt this noble talent with respect to the differences of persons and of times. Cicero understood this very well, who, when writing to a friend in England, with a caution, among other matters, to beware of being cheated by our hackney-coachmen (who, it seems, in those days were as arrant rascals as they are now), has these remarkable words: Est quod gaudeas, te in ista loca venisse, ubi aliquid sapere viderere.’’ For, to speak a bold truth, it is a fatal miscarriage so ill to order affairs, as to pass for a fool in one company, when in another you might be treated as a philosopher. Which I desire some certain gentlemen of my acquaintance to lay up in their hearts, as a very seasonable innuendo.

[…]

Lastly, whosoever pleases to look into the fountains of enthusiasm, whence in all ages have eternally proceeded such fattening streams, will find the spring-head to have been as troubled and muddy as the current: of such great emolument is a tincture of this vapour, which the world calls madness, that without its help the world would not only be deprived of those two great blessings, conquests and systems, but even all mankind would unhappily be reduced to the same belief in things invisible. Now, the former postulatum being held, that it is of no import from what originals this vapour proceeds, but either in what angles it strikes and spreads over the understanding, or upon what species of brain it ascends; it will be a very delicate point to cut the feather, and divide the several reasons to a nice and curious reader, how this numerical difference in the brain can produce effects of so vast a difference from the same vapour, as to be the sole point of individuation between Alexander the Great, Jack of Leyden, and Monsieur Descartes. The present argument is the most abstracted that ever I engaged in; it strains my faculties to their highest stretch: and I desire the reader to attend with utmost perpensity; for I now proceed to unravel this knotty point.

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Having therefore so narrowly passed through this intricate difficulty, the reader will, I am sure, agree with me in the conclusion; that if the moderns mean by madness only a disturbance or transposition of the brain, by force of certain vapours issuing up from the lower faculties; then has this madness been the parent of all those mighty revolutions that have happened in empire, in philosophy, and in religion. For the brain, in its natural position and state of serenity, disposes its owner to pass his life in the common forms, without any thoughts of subduing multitudes to his own power, his reasons, or his visions; and the more he shapes his understanding by the pattern of human learning, the less he is inclined to form parties after his particular notions; because that instructs him in his private infirmities, as well as in the stubborn ignorance of the people. But when a man’s fancy gets astride on his reason; when imagination is at cuffs with the senses, and common understanding, as well as common sense, is kicked out of doors; the first proselyte he makes, is himself; and when that is once compassed, the difficulty is not so great in bringing over others; a strong delusion always operating from without, as vigorously as from within. For cant and vision are, to the ear and the eye, the same that tickling is to the touch. Those entertainments and pleasures we most value in life, are such as dupe and play the wag with the senses. For if we take an examination of what is generally understood by happiness, as it has respect either to the understanding or the senses, we shall find all its properties and adjuncts will herd under this short definition, that it is a perpetual possession of being well deceived. And first, with relation to the mind or understanding, it is manifest what mighty advantages fiction has over truth; and the reason is just at our elbow; because imagination can build nobler scenes, and produce more wonderful revolutions, than fortune or nature will be at expense to furnish. Nor is mankind so much to blame in his choice thus determining him, if we consider that the debate merely lies between things past and things conceived: and so the question is only this; whether things that have place in the imagination may not as properly be said to exist, as those that are seated in the memory; which may be justly held in the affirmative, and very much to the advantage of the former, since this is acknowledged to be the womb of things, and the other allowed to be no more than the grave. Again, if we take this definition of happiness, and examine it with reference to the senses, it will be acknowledged wonderfully adapt. How fading and insipid do all objects accost us that are not conveyed in the vehicle of delusion! how shrunk is everything as it appears in the glass of nature! so that, if it were not for the assistance of artificial mediums, false lights, refracted angles, varnish and tinsel, there would be a mighty level in the felicity and enjoyments of mortal men. If this were seriously considered by the world, as I have a certain reason to suspect it hardly will, men would no longer reckon among their high points of wisdom the art of exposing weak sides and publishing infirmities; an employment, in my opinion, neither better nor worse than that of unmasking, which I think has never been allowed fair usage, either in the world or the play-house.

In the proportion that credulity is a more peaceful possession of the mind than curiosity; so far preferable is that wisdom which converses about the surface, to that pretended philosophy which enters into the depth of things, and then comes gravely back with informations and discoveries that in the inside they are good for nothing. The two senses to which all objects first address themselves, are the sight and the touch; these never examine farther than the colour, the shape, the size, and whatever other qualities dwell, or are drawn by art upon the outward of bodies; and then comes reason officiously with tools for cutting, and opening, and mangling, and piercing, offering to demonstrate that they are not of the same consistence quite through. Now I take all this to be the last degree of perverting nature; one of whose eternal laws it is, to put her best furniture forward. And therefore, in order to save the charges of all such expensive anatomy for the time to come, I do here think fit to inform the reader, that in such conclusions as these reason is certainly in the right; and that in most corporeal beings which have fallen under my cognizance, the outside has been infinitely preferable to the in: whereof I have been further convinced from some late experiments. Last week I saw a woman flayed; and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse. Yesterday I ordered the carcase of a beau to be stripped in my presence; when we were all amazed to find so many unsuspected faults under one suit of clothes. Then I laid open his brain, his heart, and his spleen; but I plainly perceived at every operation, that the farther we proceeded we found the defects increase upon us in number and bulk: from all which, I justly formed this conclusion to myself; that whatever philosopher or projector can find out an art to solder and patch up the flaws and imperfections of nature, will deserve much better of mankind, and teach us a more useful science, than that so much in present esteem, of widening and exposing them, like him who held anatomy to be the ultimate end of physic. And he whose fortunes and dispositions have placed him in a convenient station to enjoy the fruits of this noble art; he that can, with Epicurus, content his ideas with the films and images that fly off upon his senses from the superficies of things; such a man, truly wise, creams off nature, leaving the sour and the dregs for philosophy and reason to lap up. This is the sublime and refined point of felicity, called the possession of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves.’

Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub.

Make Bold to Fashion It

O false and treacherous Probability,
Enemy of truth, and friend to wickednesse;
With whose bleare eyes opinion learnes to see
Truths feeble party here, and barrennesse.
When thou hast thus misled Humanity,
And lost obedience in the pride of wit,
With reason dar’st thou judge the Deity,
And in thy flesh make bold to fashion it.
Vaine thoght, the word of Power a riddle is,
And till the vayles be rent, the flesh newborne,
Reveales no wonders of that inward blisse,
Which but where faith is, every where findes scorne;
Who therfore censures God with fleshly spirit,
As well in time may wrap up infinite .
Fulke Greville, Caelica, Sonnet CIV.

 

I dwell in Possibility —
A fairer House than Prose —
More numerous of Windows —
Superior— for Doors —

Of Chambers as the Cedars —
Impregnable of Eye —
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky —

Of Visitors — the fairest —
For Occupation — This —
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise —

Emily Dickinson, “I dwell in possibility”.

A Principle of Unity and a Principle of Continuity

‘That which determines a man, that which makes him one man, one and not another, the man he is and not the man he is not, is a principle of unity and a principle of continuity. A principle of unity firstly in space, thanks to the body, and next in action and intention. When we walk, one foot does not go forward and the other backward, nor, when we look, if we are normal, does one eye look towards the north and the other towards the south. In each moment of our life we entertain some purpose, and to this purpose the synergy of our actions is directed. Notwithstanding the next moment we may change our purpose. And in a certain sense a man is so much the more a man the more unitary his action. Some there are who throughout their whole life follow but one single purpose, be it what it may.

Also a principle of continuity in time. Without entering upon a discussion—an unprofitable discussion—as to whether I am or am not he who I was twenty years ago, it appears to me to be indisputable that he who I am to-day derives, by a continuous series of states of consciousness, from him who was in my body twenty years ago. Memory is the basis of individual personality, just as tradition is the basis of the collective personality of a people. We live in memory and by memory, and our spiritual life is at bottom simply the effort of our memory to persist, to transform itself into hope, the effort of our past to transform itself into our future.

All this, I know well, is sheer platitude; but in going about in the world one meets men who seem to have no feeling of their own personality. One of my best friends with whom I have walked and talked every day for many years, whenever I spoke to him of this sense of one’s own personality, used to say: “But I have no sense of myself; I don’t know what that is.”‘

Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life, translated by J. E. Crawford Flitch.

 

‘In a way that is sometimes reminiscent of Gide, Montherlant has tried to frustrate all efforts to make a stereotype of his personality or his work. ‘What is important,’ he writes in the Carnets (1957), ‘is not to be different from other people, but to be different from oneself.’ He insists, in theory and practice alike, that diversity and wholeness are inseparable, that genuine unity must absorb contradictions, not evade them. This is a theme running right through his work from his first novel, Le Songe (1922), to his most recent writings. On the purely individual level this ideal of totalisme must give full play to the conflicting elements in any single personality. Montherlant speaks, in Les Olympiques (1924), of our constant duty ‘to model our being until it fills completely the space defined by its own potentialities; until we become exactly and perfectly what we are’. The fulfilment of this duty, as Montherlant conceives it, involves three stages. First, in intellectual terms, we recognize within ourselves the presence of many different, often mutually antagonistic, tendencies. Next, exercising the will, we refuse to sacrifice any single one of these tendencies. Finally, in terms of our daily practice, we resolve the conflict to the extent of alternating between tendencies and living a dialectic which accepts their differences while striving to conserve their unity. Such a Goethean ideal of behaviour (Montherlant calls it ‘syncrétisme et alternance’) requires a complex attitude of will, passion, detachment and lucidity — qualities possessed by Montherlant to a marked degree and which give to his work as a whole its very distinctive moral climate.

On a more general level, Montherlant accepts the wider consequences of his own doctrine. He may even appear to confuse totalisme with complete abnegation of judgement and responsibility when he says that ‘everyone is always right’. Without an awareness of the twin concepts of syncrétisme and alternance such a statement is likely to be misunderstood.’

John Cruickshank, ‘Montherlant: Disorder and Unity’, The London Magazine, April 1961.

 

‘Our notion of nature may be confused, and in need of clarification. But it does express the fact that existence is not only ever-renewed; that it has, at the same time, continuity and density; it is not only recreated but given. I am not only what I do, and my world is not simply what I will. I am something given to myself and the world existed before me. Such being my condition, my liberty itself is qualified by a number of factors some arising out of myself, the limitations of my individual being; others inherent in the world, the necessities that restrict and the values that direct my liberty. Indeed, my freedom lies in a field of well-nigh universal gravitation. To forget this is only to subtilize the facts into a kind of shadow, an idea without consistency, a dream-limit; something shapeless but felt as absolute. This can excite the individual to alternate somersaults of revolt and exaltation, by the sheer intensity of which he is captivated, while remaining indifferent to their contradictions (this is the universe of Malraux or of de Montherlant). There is a still graver consequence. A freedom that gushes forth as sheer reality, that is so closely involved with the crude assertion of existence that it is presented as a necessity Sartre calls it a condemnation is a blind force of nature, a naked power. Who will distinguish it from instinctive preference and from the will to power? How can it be mine, if I cannot refuse it? Where will this freedom take on a human countenance, if the face of man is formed only by his own decisions? Who will keep it within human bounds, if the only frontiers between the human and inhuman are those that it decrees? Or who will restrain this freedom from desiring, in some supreme exaltation, to experience its own dissolution? From this position we are in peril of drifting not only towards  the illusions of formalized liberty, but into the frenzies of ‘living intensely’ (Whoever feels himself ‘condemned’ to freedom, to an absurd and illimitable liberty, may find no distraction from his fate except in condemning others to it, like Caligula, by sheer terrorism.’

Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism, translated by Philip Mairet.