Indifference is endemic. It is a disease which has spread through our whole civilization, and which is a symptom of a lowered vitality. The sensibilities are dulled and the average human being no longer cares to feel the keen edge of life, to have freshness in vision or zest and savour in the senses. He prefers to face life in the armour of boredom and cynicism, fending off despair with the brazen shield of dissipation. If he is rich he can command amusements that soothe his exacerbated nerves without engaging his mind or intriguing his imagination; if he is poor he will plunge into the cheap make-believe world of Hollywood where he can enjoy vicariously the glittering life of the rich; or he will gamble his ill-spared shillings on the football pools in the expectation of one day being able to indulge his own hectic spending. But rich or poor, it is the same fever to escape from reality – above all, from art, which is the mirror of reality in which the reality of life is accentuated.
—Herbert Read (‘The Symptoms of Decadence’
in To Hell with Culture, p. 86)
an antique fashion shows
The cover was off-putting. A boy in a garden, glancing slyly back at an illicit meeting, in the unctuous watercolors so popular for mass market literary paperbacks of a certain age. I refer, of course, to a Penguin edition of First Love, translated by Isaiah Berlin, which, as a book, rather reminded me (not to give too much away) of the The Go-Between – but then L.P. Hartley is to Turgenev as Noël Coward is to Ibsen.1
The novel, set within the double frame of men recounting their first loves after dinner one night, and the unexpected, unsettling confession/recital of the narrator in a letter, is uncanny in its representation of desire and what is means to desire – how so often it is desire not for the happiness of the beloved, but for the imagined goods (cachet, self-respect, envy) the beloved could potentially bring. It flows neatly and then twists, revealing heartbreak rather than the more common disillusionment.
Although I did not think much of it at the time, the ungainly formality and suggestion of melodrama irritating as a long-winded dinner guest, yet I can think back on it over a year later and feel its freshness. In memory, the story becomes new in a way it never was on reading.2
- A hyperbolic statement, but one should not dismiss it entirely on that account. [↩]
- I see, looking at my notes from soon after reading First Love, that I had meant to write about Byron. But I can’t at all remember what I had intended to say. [↩]
The walk to work takes an hour to cover approximately three miles. This is a bit slow, perhaps, but given the uncertain state of draw bridges, traffic signals, and my own ambling pace, it feels about right. It gives me plenty of time to think – about the day ahead, about anything at all.
The other morning I occupied my time by thinking about counting. More particularly, I tried to count to thirty in every language I had ever learned even a smattering of. The successes were surprising: German, Armenian, Japanese; so too were the failures: French – the teens tripped me up; Mongolian – the only number I could remember off the top of my head was тав, and a bit of cudgeling could bring up sixes and sevens, but that’s about it; Greek – counting was never a priority – ditto Latin; Russian – again, as for Mongolian, I could only remember пять, as that was the number of persons allowed in elevators and I had happened to make a little song of it to myself.
One learns so much – and forgets it, too, if one has learnt it indifferently or avoided using it. Or so at least I thought, as I rounded the last corner before work.
cunning & resourceful
Mimesis has been on my list of books to read for quite some time. The notion that it was written from memory, without access to a present library of familiar reference books appealed to me. So of course when I saw a copy of Auerbach’s book on Dante at the library, it seemed a pleasant way to ease in to reading Mimesis.
The trouble started on page two. In a discussion of characterisation in Homer (and who does not love a discussion of the peculiar character of heroes in Homer?) Auerbach says the following:
Homer’s inventive gift carries within it a conviction that neither observation nor reason can wholly justify, although everything in his work supports it; the conviction that every character is at the root of his own particular fate and that he will inevitably incur the fate that is appropriate to him. But this means appropriate to him as a whole not, not to any one of his attributes […] What can be represented in poetic terms and what demands belief on the part of the reader, is not that good things happen to a good man and brave things to a brave man, but that the fate of Achilles is Achillean; the epithets δῖος, ‘godlike’, and πολυμῆτις [sic], ‘astute’, carry meaning only for those who know what they contain of Achilles’ character (2).
This is well enough as far as it goes, except that the second epithet contains nothing of Achilles’ character – for Achilles is a fellow who is swift with regard to his feet, not his intellect.1 Indeed, πολύμητις is, rather famously, a characteristic of Odysseus, a man who differed somewhat significantly from lion-hearted Achilles in terms of aptitudes and personality.
Now I grant you this a book about Dante, but this sort of lazy lack of accuracy (or checking up) on details about rather famous literary characters does not bode well for the correctness of the references in Mimesis, since our author did not see fit to check such things even when he did have access to a reference library; but perhaps the book does not rely on close and careful reading. Time will tell.
- I will say nothing of the misplaced accent. [↩]
On the pragmatist side we have only one edition of the universe, unfinished, growing in all sorts of places, especially in the places where thinking beings are at work.
On the rationalist side we have a universe in many editions, one real one, the infinite folio, or edition de luxe, eternally complete; and then the various finite editions, full of false readings, distorted and mutilated each in its own way. […]
And first let me say that it is impossible not to see a temperamental difference at work in the choice of sides. The rationalist mind, radically taken, is of a doctrinaire and authoritative complexion: the phrase ‘must be’ is ever on its lips. The belly-band of its universe must be tight. A radical pragmatist on the other hand is a happy-go-lucky anarchistic sort of creature. If he had to live in a tub like Diogenes he wouldn’t mind at all if the hoops were loose and the staves let in the sun.
– William James (Pragmatism, p. 600)