Once Upon a Time

‘CONSIDER the herds that are feeding yonder: they know not the meaning of yesterday or to-day; they graze and ruminate, move or rest, from morning to night, from day to day, taken up with their little loves and hates, at the mercy of the moment, feeling neither melancholy nor satiety. Man cannot see them without regret, for even in the pride of his humanity he looks enviously on the beast’s happiness. He wishes simply to live without satiety or pain, like the beast; yet it is all in vain, for he will not change places with it. He may ask the beast—”Why do you look at me and not speak to me of your happiness?” The beast wants to answer—”Because I always forget what I wished to say”: but he forgets this answer too, and is silent; and the man is left to wonder.

He wonders also about himself, that he cannot learn to forget, but hangs on the past: however far or fast he run, that chain runs with him. It is matter for wonder: the moment, that is here and gone, that was nothing before and nothing after, returns like a spectre to trouble the quiet of a later moment. A leaf is continually dropping out of the volume of time and fluttering away and suddenly it flutters back into the man’s lap. Then he says, “I remember . . . ,” and envies the beast, that forgets at once, and sees every moment really die, sink into night and mist, extinguished for ever. The beast lives unhistorically; for it “goes into” the present, like a number, without leaving any curious remainder. It cannot dissimulate, it conceals nothing; at every moment it seems what it actually is, and thus can be nothing that is not honest. But man is always resisting the great and continually increasing weight of the past; it presses him down, and bows his shoulders; he travels with a dark invisible burden that he can plausibly disown, and is only too glad to disown in converse with his fellows—in order to excite their envy. And so it hurts him, like the thought of a lost Paradise, to see a herd grazing, or, nearer still, a child, that has nothing yet of the past to disown, and plays in a happy blindness between the walls of the past and the future. And yet its play must be disturbed, and only too soon will it be summoned from its little kingdom of oblivion. Then it learns to understand the words “once upon a time,” the “open sesame” that lets in battle, suffering and weariness on mankind, and reminds them what their existence really is, an imperfect tense that never becomes a present. And when death brings at last the desired forgetfulness, it abolishes life and being together, and sets the seal on the knowledge that “being” is merely a continual “has been,” a thing that lives by denying and destroying and contradicting itself.’

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History for Life, translated by Adrian Collins.

 

‘The historical materialist cannot do without the concept of a present which is not a transition, in which time originates and has come to a standstill. For this concept defines precisely the present in which he writes history for his person. Historicism depicts the “eternal” picture of the past; the historical materialist, an experience with it, which stands alone. He leaves it to others to give themselves to the whore called “Once upon a time” in the bordello of historicism. He remains master of his powers: man enough, to explode the continuum of history.

[…]

Historicism justifiably culminates in universal history. Nowhere does the materialist writing of history distance itself from it more clearly than in terms of method. The former has no theoretical armature. Its method is additive: it offers a mass of facts, in order to fill up a homogenous and empty time. The materialist writing of history for its part is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the movement of thoughts but also their zero-hour. Where thinking suddenly halts in a constellation overflowing with tensions, there it yields a shock to the same, through which it crystallizes as a monad. The historical materialist approaches a historical object solely and alone where he encounters it as a monad. In this structure he cognizes the sign of a messianic zero-hour of events, or put differently, a revolutionary chance in the struggle for the suppressed past. He perceives it, in order to explode a specific epoch out of the homogenous course of history; thus exploding a specific life out of the epoch, or a specific work out of the life-work. The net gain of this procedure consists of this: that the life-work is preserved and sublated in the work, the epoch in the life-work, and the entire course of history in the epoch. The nourishing fruit of what is historically conceptualized has time as its core, its precious but flavorless seed.

[…]

Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal nexus of various moments of history. But no state of affairs is, as a cause, already a historical one. It becomes this, posthumously, through eventualities which may be separated from it by millennia. The historian who starts from this, ceases to permit the consequences of eventualities to run through the fingers like the beads of a rosary. He records [erfasst] the constellation in which his own epoch comes into contact with that of an earlier one. He thereby establishes a concept of the present as that of the here-and-now, in which splinters of messianic time are shot through.’

Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, translated by Dennis Redmond.

 

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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.

Neither Dream, Nor Fantasy, Nor Mystery

‘At bottom what is Greek art? It is realism of the beautiful, with nothing of the ideality preached by the art teachers of the institute. In Greek beauty there is neither dream, nor fantasy, nor mystery.’

Jules and Edmond de Goncourt, as quoted in French Folly in Maxims of Art, translated and edited by Henri Pène du Bois.

‘In ancient Greece there was no such thing as ‘conscience’, just the balance of body and intellect…I found the conclusion of my leanings toward classicism here. That’s to say, making a beautiful work and making yourself into something beautiful are discoveries of the same ethical principles.’

Yukio Mishima, as quoted in Yukio Mishima by David Flanagan.

‘What Mishima wanted from Greece was an antidote to his Romantic affliction. It was not only the reason, the rule and measure of classicism that he sought; he wanted physical and mental sunlight in place of darkness, radiant surfaces in place of deep interiors, a balance between the intelligence and the body uncompromised by the “spirit”, the conscience, the poetic imagination.’

John Nathan, Mishima: A Biography.

‘According to Maulnier, the truth of classical art and all great art in general for Nietzsche is that art is “a mode of expression different from life, more perfect than life whose awkwardness, insignificances, and stammerings it ignores. No one, perhaps, got closer to defining the lively value of classical discipline, which claims to make passion more ardent and more intelligible, not mutilate it or moderate it. A style of life, a classical style consists thus not in restraining life but in maintaining it, by a skilful and severe constraint, at  its height and at the point of its most expansive intensity. Such a constraint allows for a more exposed, more essential, more violent existence.”‘

Theirry Maulnier quoted by David Carrol in French Literary Fascism: Nationalism, Anti-Semitism, and the Ideology of Culture.

All that is Form, System, Category, Frame or Plan

‘Those who write under the spell of inspiration, for whom thought is an expression of their organic nervous disposition, do not concern themselves with unity and systems. Such concerns, contradictions and facile paradoxes indicate an impoverished and insipid personal life…People who know only a few spiritual states and never live on the edge do not have contradictions, because their limited resources cannot form oppositions…All that is form, system, category, frame or plan tends to make things absolute and springs from a lack of inner energy, from a sterile spiritual life.’

Emil Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, translated by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston.

‘I distrust all systematizers, and avoid them. The will to a system shows a lack of honesty.’

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, translated by Anthony M. Ludovici.

Forget or Forgive?

‘A noble spirit finds a cure for injustice in forgetting it.’

Publilius Syrus.

”He insulted me, he hurt me, he defeated me, he robbed me.’ Those who think such thoughts will never be free from hate. For hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love: this is a law eternal.’

The Dhammapada.

‘To be unable to take his enemies, his misfortunes and even his misdeeds seriously for long – that is the sign of strong, rounded natures with a superabundance of a power which is flexible, formative, healing and can make one forget (a good example from the modern world is Mirabeau, who had no recall for the insults and slights directed at him and who could not forgive, simply because he – forgot.)’

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals.

By Finding it Good

‘Consent to be completely inactive and useless better to allow God to work in me, and to desire only what He desires…We must… make death itself voluntary (although it be inevitable) by finding it good – which is impossible without faith, hope and charity.’

Raissa Maritain, Journals.

‘My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not in the future, not in the past, not for all eternity… I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth!’

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

The Secret of Happiness

‘To “give style” to one’s character—a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan until every one of them appears as art and reason and even weaknesses delight the eye. Here a large mass of second nature has been added; there a piece of original nature has been removed—both times through long practice and daily work at it. Here the ugly that could not be removed is concealed; there it has been reinterpreted and made sublime. Much that is vague and resisted shaping has been saved and exploited for distant views; it is meant to beckon toward the far and immeasurable. In the end, when the work is finished, it becomes evident how the constraint of a single taste governed and formed everything large and small. Whether this taste was good or bad is less important than one might suppose, if only it was a single taste!’

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

‘Why do people adopt poses, play the dandy, the skeptic, the stoic or the careless trifler? Because they feel there is something superior in facing life according to a standard and a discipline they have imposed on themselves, if only in their mind. And, in fact, this is the secret of happiness; to adopt a pattern of behavior, a style, a mold into which all our impressions and expressions must fall and be remodeled. Every life lived according to a pattern that is consistent, comprehensive and vital, has a classic symmetry.’

Cesare Pavese, Diaries, translated by A. E. Murch. http://thisrecording.com/today/2010/5/21/in-which-we-live-like-the-most-contemptible-wastrels.html

Style and the Body – II

‘[The actor David Garrick] appeared wholly present in the muscles of his body.’

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, as quoted by Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation.

‘An actor must know the composition of the entire production, must understand and feel it with his whole body.  Only then does he make himself a component of it and begin to sound in harmony with it.’

Vsevolod Meyerhold.

‘Our most sacred convictions, our most unalterable faith in the matter of supreme values, are judgements of our muscles.’

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power.