A Pattern of the Best and Honourablest Things

‘Ever since the French Revolution there has developed a vicious, cretinizing tendency to consider genius (apart from his work) as a human, more or less the same as other humans. This is wrong. The daily life of a genius, his sleep, his digestion, his ecstasies…his blood, his life and death are essentially different from the rest of mankind.’

Salvador Dali, Diary of a Genius.

‘…he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem, that is, a composition, and a pattern of the best and honourablest things, not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men, or famous cities, unless he has himself the experience and the practice of all that is praiseworthy.’

John Milton, An Apology for Smectymnuus.

‘In all things by which praise is won, Leon Battista was from his childhood the first. Of his various gymnastic feats and exercises we read with astonishment how, with his feet together, he could spring over a man’s head; how, in the cathedral, he threw a coin in the air till it was heard to ring against a different roof; how the wildest horses trembled under him. In three things he desired to appear faultless to others: in walking, in riding, and in speaking. He learned music without a master, and yet his compositions were admired by professional judges. Under the pressure of poverty, he studied both civil and canonical law for many years, till exhaustion brought a severe illness… And all the while he acquired every sort of accomplishment and dexterity, cross-examining artists, scholars and artisans of all descriptions, down to the cobblers, about the peculiarities of their craft. Painting and modelling he practised by the way, and especially excelled in admirable likeness from memory… And that which others created he welcomed joyfully, and held every human achievement which followed the laws of beauty to be almost divine… But the deepest spring of his nature has yet to be spoken of – the sympathetic intensity with which he entered into the whole life around him. At the sight of noble trees and waving cornfileds he shed tears; handsome and dignified old men he honoured as a delight of nature and never look at them enough. Perfectly formed animals won his goodwill as being specially favoured by nature; and more than once, when he was ill, the sight of a beautiful landscape cured him. No wonder that those who saw him in this close and mysterious communion with the world ascribed to him the gift of prophecy. It need not be added that an iron will pervaded and sustained his whole personality; like all the great men of the Renaissance, he said; Men can do all things if they will.’

Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S. G. C. Middlemore.

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Style and the Body – I

‘Today, what are hands good for? Hands, poor hands which hang down at our sides. How do you expect there to be painters born, when our hands are dead? And musicians as well. And even writers. Because style, for the latter as for all the others, is born of the memory of the entire body’.

Pierre Drieu la Rochelle, as quoted and translated by David Carroll.

‘What, now, of my dealings with words during this same period? By now, I had made of my style something appropriate to my muscles: it had become flexible and free; all fatty embellishment had been stripped from it, while “muscular” ornament—ornament, that is, that though possibly without use in modern civilisation was still as necessary as ever for purposes of prestige and presentability—had been assiduously maintained. I disliked a style that was merely functional as much as one that was merely sensuous.

Nevertheless, I was on an isolated island of my own. Just as my body was isolated, so my style was on the verge of non-communication; it was a style that did not accept, but rejected. More than anything, I was preoccupied with distinction (not that my own style necessarily had it). My ideal style would have had the grave beauty of polished wood in the entrance hall of a samurai mansion on a winter’s day.

In my style, as hardly needs pointing out, I progressively turned my back on the preferences of the age. Abounding in antitheses, clothed in an old-fashioned, weighty solemnity, it did not lack nobility of a kind; but it maintained the same ceremonial, grave pace wherever it went, marching through other people’s bedrooms with precisely the same tread as elsewhere. Like some military gentleman, it went about with chest out and shoulders back, despising other men’s styles for the way they stooped, sagged at the knees, even—heaven forbid!—swayed at the hips.

I knew, of course, that there are some truths in this world that one cannot see unless one unbends one’s posture. But such things could well be left to others.

Somewhere within me, I was beginning to plan a union of art and life, of style and the ethos of action. If style was similar to muscles and patterns of behaviour, then its function was obviously to restrain the wayward imagination.’

Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel, translated by John Bester.

Compare

‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes.’

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.

The whole man is to move together... and that the general tendency of our indifferent actions ought to be agreeable to the dictates of reason, of religion, of good breeding; without this… a man is hopping instead of walking, he is not in his entire and proper motion.’

Richard Steele, The Spectator, March 7 1711.

Tout mouvement nous descouvre

‘All motion discovers us: the very same soul of Caesar, that made itself
so conspicuous in marshalling and commanding the battle of Pharsalia, was
also seen as solicitous and busy in the softer affairs of love and
leisure. A man makes a judgment of a horse, not only by seeing him when
he is showing off his paces, but by his very walk, nay, and by seeing him
stand in the stable.’

Montaigne, Of Democritus and Heraclitus, translated by Charles Cotton.

‘It is a wonderful thing how the individuality of every man (i.e. a certain particular character with a certain particular intellect) minutely determines his every thought and action and like penetrative dye permeates even the most insignificant part of them, so that the entire life-course, i.e. the inner and outer history, of each one differs fundamentally from that of all the others. As a botanist can recognize the whole plant from one leaf, as Cuvier can construct the whole animal from one bone, so an accurate knowledge of a man’s character can be arrived at from a single characteristic action; and that is true even when this action involves some trifle – indeed this is often better for the purpose, for with important things people are on their guard, while with trifles they follow their own nature without much reflection.’

Arthur Schopenhauer, On Ethics, translated by R. J. Hollingdale.