Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Know Thyself

I have once again discovered on the Laudator Temporis Acti blog an entry worth relating.  I find it a fitting description of myself, a 'Scholler-Mountebank', a 'great Plagiarie of Tauerne-wit',  having 'taken paines to be an Asse, though not to be a Scholler'.

The likeness extends even down to the accompanying photograph*:

*  Photograph originally from --

Saturday, October 26, 2013


Umberto Eco, tr. Geoffrey Brock, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (Harcourt, 2004) p. 216
Back at the house, I had a craving for an apple, and I entered the lower rooms of the central wing.  Strolling among the fruits and vegetables, I noticed that some of the large rooms on the ground floor were being used for storage and that in the back of one room were stacks of deck chairs.  I carried one into the yard.  I sat down facing the panorama, skimmed the newspapers, realized I was barely interested in the present, turned the chair around, and began looking at the front of the house and the hills behind it.  I asked myself what I was looking for, what I wanted, would it not be enough to sit here looking at that hill that is so beautiful, as the novel said, what was it called?  To raise three pavilions, Lord, one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah, and loaf without a past and without a future.  Perhaps that is what paradise is like.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

How To Boil A Frog

Gore Vidal, Creation pp 398-9
The prime minister received each petitioner with a quiet courtesy that was entirely unlike his fierce political views.  He was shrewd enough to know that you can never enslave a reluctant people without first charming them.  Certainly, you must convince them that your way is their way and that the chains which you have forged for them are necessary ornaments.  In a sense, the Great Kings have always realized this.  From Cyrus to our current enlightened lord, Artaxerxes, the diverse peoples  of the empire are allowed to live pretty much as they have always lived, change for which he gives them safety and law.  Huan had managed to convince the admittedly barbarous and remote Ch'inese that although there had once been a golden age when men were free to live as they pleased, that age ended when -- and how he loved to use the phrase! -- "there were too many people and too few things."

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


"O! what a prodigal have I been of that most valuable of all possessions—Time!"

- The final words of the Second Duke of Buckingham

Friday, September 20, 2013

Ambition, Purpose, and ...

Ambition promotes action and wards off apathy.  Ambitious goals offer motivation to an otherwise slothful personality.  Is life's purpose simply to struggle towards those goals?  Is happiness measured by one's progress in their pursuit?

But how to choose these goals.  Whither to aim?  What ends to achieve? How to gauge advancement?

Vexatious questions.  Attempt too much and never succeed.  Attempt too little and your gains are hollow.  Tarry long in your decision, and life passes you by.  Choose poorly, and regret it in your dotage.

Like all ideas on this blog, a more apt expression already existed generations ago:

 Robert Browning, A Grammarian's Funeral:
That low man seeks a little thing to do,
          Sees it and does it:
This high man, with a great thing to pursue,
          Dies ere he knows it.
That low man goes on adding one to one,
          His hundred's soon hit:
This high man, aiming at a million,
          Misses an unit.
Lately I find these themes in all I read: the uncertain purpose of existence, and the lament of the road not taken.  Writers have ruminated on these universal themes since reeds were pressed into clay, but put into a pretty passage, I will still freeze up as I read them.  Some samplings from recent readings:
Gore Vidal, Creation

I think that I might have done well at banking had I not been so carefully trained to be neither a priest nor a warrior.  Although I have the Persian noble's contempt of trade, I lack his passion for war and hunting and drinking wine to excess.  Although I  have a priest's deep knowledge of religion, I am not certain what is true.  Although I once heard the voice of the Wise Lord, I confess now in my old age that to hear and to listen are two different things.  I am puzzled by creation.  (p. 327)
But then, what we are is seldom what we want to be while what we want to be is either denied us -- or changes with the seasons.
     Am I not wise, Democritus?  Now that winter's come for me and the ice is black, I know exactly who and what I am -- a corpse-in-waiting.  (p. 374)
Related Posts: So & So From Wherever, All My Ghosts

Sunday, June 23, 2013

As Often As I Review Them, They Disgust Me

Michel de Montaigne, Of Presumption, (tr. Charles Cotton)
I envy the happiness of those who can please and hug themselves in what they do; for 'tis an easy thing to be so pleased, because a man extracts that pleasure from himself, especially if he be constant in his self-conceit.
My works are so far from pleasing me that as often as I review them, they disgust me:
When I re-peruse, I blush at what I have written;
I ever see one passage after another that I, the author,
Being the judge, consider should be erased.
I have always  an idea in my soul, and a sort of disturbed image which presents me as in a dream with a better form than that I have made use of; but I cannot catch it nor fit it to my purpose; and even that idea is but of the meaner sort.

Michel de Montaigne, Of Books, (tr. Charles Cotton)
I make no doubt but that I often happen to speak of things that are much better and more truly handled by those who are masters of the trade.  You have here purely an essay of my natural parts, and not of those acquired: and whoever shall catch me tripping in ignorance, will not in any sort get the better of me; for I should be very unwilling to become responsible to another for my writings, who am not so to myself, nor satisfied with them.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

So & So From Wherever

Michel de Montaigne, Of Glory, (tr. Charles Cotton)
Of so many thousands of valiant men who have died within these fifteen hundred years in France with their swords in their hands, not a hundred have come to our knowledge.  The memory, not of the commanders only, but of battles and victories, is buried and gone; the fortunes of above half of the world, for want of a record, stir not from their place, and vanish without duration.
Matthew Arnold, Rugby Chapel
What is the course of the life
Of mortal men on the earth? --
Most men eddy about
Here and there -- eat and drink,
Chatter and love and hate,
Gather and squander, are raised
Aloft, are hurl'd in the dust,
Striving blindly, achieving
Nothing; and then they die --
Perish; -- and no one asks
Who or what they have been,
More than he asks what waves,
In the moonlit solitudes mild
Of the midmost Ocean,  have swell'd,
Foam'd for a moment, and gone.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Where are those splendid horses?

Autobiography of Giuseppe Garibaldi, tr. A. Werner (London: Walter Smith and Innes, 1889) pp 31-32.
Who can conceive the feelings awakened in the heart of a buccaneer of twenty-five by his first sight of that untamed nature?  To-day--December 20, 1871--bending with stiffened limbs over the fire, I recall with emotion those scenes of the past, when life seemed to smile on me, in the presence of the most magnificent spectacle I ever beheld.  I for my part am old and worn.  Where are those splendid horses?  Where are the bulls, the antelopes, the ostriches, which beautified and enlivened those pleasant hills?  Their descendants, no doubt, still roam over those fertile pastures, and will do so, till steam and iron come to increase the riches of the soil, but destroy those marvelous scenes of nature.
 Related Posts: Shocking Ugliness, Stupid Hurry, and Slavish Uniformity,  All My Ghosts

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Credulity, Part One

Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum, tr. William Weaver (Harcourt, 1989), p. 49:

I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren't trying to teach us.  We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.  When I was ten, I asked my parents to subscribe to a weekly magazine that was publishing comic-strip versions of the great classics of literature.  My father, not because he was stingy, but because he was suspicious of comic strips, tried to beg off.  "The purpose of this magazine," I pontificated, quoting the ad, "is to educate the reader in an entertaining way."  "The purpose of your magazine," my father replied without looking up from his paper, "is the purpose of every magazine: to sell as many copies as it can."
That day, I began to be incredulous.
Or, rather, I regretted having been credulous.  I regretted having allowed myself to be borne away by a passion of the mind.  Such is credulity.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

All My Ghosts

A few years ago I read a poem on the blog Laudator Temporis Acti.  The poem is by August von Platen, with a translation by one Eric Sams.  Hardly a day passes for me without a thought of its lines.
Der Strom, der neben mir verrauschte, wo ist er nun?
Der Vogel, dessen Lied ich lauschte, wo ist er nun?
Wo ist die Rose, die die Freundin am Herzen trug?
Und jener Kuß, der mich berauschte, wo ist er nun?
Und jener Mensch, der ich gewesen, und den ich längst
Mit einem andern Ich vertauschte, wo ist er nun?
The river whose sound faded past me, where is it now?
The bird whose song I listened to, where is it now? 
Where is the rose that my love wore at her breast, 
And that kiss which enraptured me, where is it now? 
And that man I once was and whom I long ago 
Exchanged for another self, where is he now?
Borges tells us that 'poetry is the encounter of the reader with the book, the discovery of the book.'  In such an encounter we might glimpse our own reflection, and perhaps in our mind's eye we gaze wistfully upon some half-vanished memory or some unfulfilled intention.  And with this pang of recognition stalk the ghosts of all the men we could have been had we only chosen to be them.
But then, all our lives we postpone everything that can be postponed; perhaps we all have the certainty, deep inside, that we are immortal and that sooner or later every man will do everything, know all there is to know.  (Jorge Luis Borges, Funes, His Memory, tr. Andrew Hurley)