In the Hour of Confidence and Tranquillity

‘I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, I speak like a child.’

Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions.

‘I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness.’

Franz Kafka, letter to Ottla Kafka, July 10, 1914.

‘If you love the man of letters, seek him in the privacies of his study. It is in the hour of confidence and tranquillity that his genius shall elicit a ray of intelligence, more fervid than the labours of polished composition.

The great Peter Corneille, whose genius resembled that of our Shakespeare, and who has so forcibly expressed the sublime sentiments of the hero, had nothing in his exterior that indicated his genius; on the contrary, his conversation was so insipid that it never failed of wearying. Nature, who had lavished on him the gifts of genius, had forgotten to blend with them her more ordinary ones. He did not even speak correctly that language of which he was such a master.

When his friends represented to him how much more he might please by not disdaining to correct these trivial errors, he would smile, and say—“I am not the less Peter Corneille!” Descartes, whose habits were formed in solitude and meditation, was silent in mixed company; and Thomas describes his mind by saying that he had received his intellectual wealth from nature in solid bars, but not in current coin; or as Addison expressed the same idea, by comparing himself to a banker who possessed the wealth of his friends at home, though he carried none of it in his pocket; or as that judicious moralist Nicolle, one of the Port-Royal Society, said of a scintillant wit—“He conquers me in the drawing-room, but he surrenders to me at discretion on the staircase.” Such may say with Themistocles, when asked to play on a lute,—“I cannot fiddle, but I can make a litte village a great city.”

The deficiencies of Addison in conversation are well known. He preserved a rigid silence amongst strangers; but if he was silent, it was the silence of meditation. How often, at that moment, he laboured at some future Spectator!

 

Virgil was heavy in conversation, and resembled more an ordinary man than an enchanting poet.

La Fontaine, says La Bruyere, appeared coarse, heavy, and stupid; he could not speak or describe what he had just seen; but when he wrote he was the model of poetry.

It is very easy, said a humorous observer on La Fontaine, to be a man of wit, or a fool; but to be both, and that too in the extreme degree, is indeed admirable, and only to be found in him. This observation applies to that fine natural genius Goldsmith. Chaucer was more facetious in his tales than in his conversation; and the Countess of Pembroke used to rally him by saying that his silence was more agreeable to her than his conversation.

Isocrates, celebrated for his beautiful oratorical compositions, was of so timid a disposition, that he never ventured to speak in public. He compared himself to the whetstone which will not cut, but enables other things to do this; for his productions served as models to other orators. Vaucanson was said to be as much a machine as any he had made.

Dryden says of himself,—“My conversation is slow and dull, my humour saturnine and reserved. In short, I am none of those who endeavour to break jests in company, or make repartees.”’

Isaac D’Israeli, ‘Men of Genius Deficient in Conversation’, Curiosities of Literature.

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Wasted by Words

I have often noticed that after I had bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it. Although it lingered on in my mind, its personal warmth, its retrospective appeal had gone and, presently, it became more closely identified with my novel than my former self, where it had seemed to be so safe from the intrusion of the artist.

Vladimir Nabokov, ‘Mademoiselle O’, Nabokov’s Dozen.

When I examine closely my early childhood, I realise that my memory of words reaches back far farther than my memory of the flesh. In the average person, I imagine, the body precedes language. In my case, words came first of all; then—belatedly, with every appearance of extreme reluctance, and already clothed in concepts—came the flesh. It was already, as goes without saying, sadly wasted by words. First comes the pillar of plain wood, then the white ants feed on it. But for me, the white ants were there from the start, and the pillar of plain wood emerged tardily, already half eaten away.

Words are a medium that reduces reality to abstraction for transmission to our reason, and in their power to corrode reality inevitably lurks the danger that the words themselves will be corroded too. It might be more appropriate, in fact, to liken their action to that of excess stomach fluids that digest and gradually eat away the stomach itself.

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

“Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice. Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or, perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little”.

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.