But as so much duckweed on a river

From Jack London’s John Barleycorn, in London’s inner dialogue with what he terms the White Logic – the brutal insight of drunkenness:

“Your clear white light is sickness,” I tell the White Logic. “You lie.”

“By telling too strong a truth,” he quips back.

“Alas, yes, so topsy-turvy is existence,” I acknowledge sadly.

“Ah, well, Liu Ling was wiser than you,” the White Logic girds. “You remember him?”

I nod my head—Liu Ling, a hard drinker, one of the group of bibulous poets who called themselves the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and who lived in China many an ancient century ago.

“It was Liu Ling,” prompts the White Logic, “who declared that to a drunken man the affairs of this world appear but as so much duckweed on a river. Very well. Have another Scotch, and let semblance and deception become duck-weed on a river.”

The sentiment comes from Liu Ling’s In Praise of the Virtues of Wine (trans. Jennifer Oldstone-Moore):

There is Mr. Great Man:

He takes Heaven and Earth to be one day,

Ten thousand years to be one moment

The sun and moon are his windows;

The eight barren places are his palaces.

He travels without tracks or traces

He lives without room or cottage

Heaven is his curtain, the earth his mat

Self-indulgent, he does what he pleases….

No worries, no brooding,

He is content and well pleased.

He becomes intoxicated without moving;

All of a sudden, he awakens from his drunkenness…

He doesn’t know the feeling of flesh hurt by bitter cold or searing heat,

Or the sensations of covetousness

Gazing down, he watches the rest of the world agitated and unsettled

Like bits of duckweed borne on the Yangtze and Han rivers.




He had left his tea. Was he to have nothing in return?

From Thomas de Quincey’s On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts:

Everything in this world has two handles. Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle, (as it generally is in the pulpit, and at the Old Bailey;) and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated  aesthetically, as the Germans
call it, that is, in relation to good taste.

To illustrate this, I will urge the authority of three eminent persons,
viz., S.T. Coleridge, Aristotle, and Mr. Howship the surgeon. To begin with
S.T.C. One night, many years ago, I was drinking tea with him in Berners’
Street, (which, by the way, for a short street, has been uncommonly
fruitful in men of genius.) Others were there besides myself; and amidst
some carnal considerations of tea and toast, we were all imbibing a
dissertation on Plotinus from the attic lips of S.T.C. Suddenly a cry arose
of “Firefire!” upon which all of us, master and disciples, Plato and
[Greek: hoi peri ton Platona], rushed out, eager for the spectacle. The
fire was in Oxford Street, at a piano-forte maker’s; and, as it promised to
be a conflagration of merit, I was sorry that my engagements forced me away
from Mr. Coleridge’s party before matters were come to a crisis. Some days
after, meeting with my Platonic host, I reminded him of the case, and
begged to know how that very promising exhibition had terminated. “Oh,
sir,” said he, “it turned out so ill, that we damned it unanimously.” Now,
does any man suppose that Mr. Coleridge,–who, for all he is too fat to be
a person of active virtue, is undoubtedly a worthy Christian,–that this
good S. T. C., I say, was an incendiary, or capable of wishing any ill
to the poor man and his piano-fortes (many of them, doubtless, with the
additional keys)? On the contrary, I know him to be that sort of man, that
I durst stake my life upon it he would have worked an engine in a case of
necessity, although rather of the fattest for such fiery trials of his
virtue. But how stood the case? Virtue was in no request. On the arrival
of the fire-engines, morality had devolved wholly on the insurance office.
This being the case, he had a right to gratify his taste. He had left his
tea. Was he to have nothing in return?

Morbidity deliberately encouraged

From G.K. Chesterton’s Club of Queer Trades – the narrators introductory sketch of Basil Grant:

Long ago as it is, everyone remembers the terrible and grotesque scene that occurred in—, when one of the most acute and forcible of the English judges suddenly went mad on the bench. I had my own view of that occurrence; but about the facts themselves there is no question at all. For some months, indeed for some years, people had detected something curious in the judge’s conduct. He seemed to have lost interest in the law, in which he had been beyond expression brilliant and terrible as a K.C., and to be occupied in giving personal and moral advice to the people concerned. He talked more like a priest or a doctor, and a very outspoken one at that. The first thrill was probably given when he said to a man who had attempted a crime of passion: “I sentence you to three years imprisonment, under the firm, and solemn, and God-given conviction, that what you require is three months at the seaside.” He accused criminals from the bench, not so much of their obvious legal crimes, but of things that had never been heard of in a court of justice, monstrous egoism, lack of humour, and morbidity deliberately encouraged. Things came to a head in that celebrated diamond case in which the Prime Minister himself, that brilliant patrician, had to come forward, gracefully and reluctantly, to give evidence against his valet. After the detailed life of the household had been thoroughly exhibited, the judge requested the Premier again to step forward, which he did with quiet dignity. The judge then said, in a sudden, grating voice: “Get a new soul. That thing’s not fit for a dog. Get a new soul.” All this, of course, in the eyes of the sagacious, was premonitory of that melancholy and farcical day when his wits actually deserted him in open court. It was a libel case between two very eminent and powerful financiers, against both of whom charges of considerable defalcation were brought. The case was long and complex; the advocates were long and eloquent; but at last, after weeks of work and rhetoric, the time came for the great judge to give a summing-up; and one of his celebrated masterpieces of lucidity and pulverizing logic was eagerly looked for. He had spoken very little during the prolonged affair, and he looked sad and lowering at the end of it. He was silent for a few moments, and then burst into a stentorian song. His remarks (as reported) were as follows:
“O Rowty-owty tiddly-owty Tiddly-owty tiddly-owty Highty-ighty tiddly-ighty Tiddly-ighty ow.”
He then retired from public life and took the garret in Lambeth.

Our mummy of culture

An excerpt from Ernst Junger’s War Diaries, included in Martin Meyer’s afterword to Junger’s Aladdin’s Problem.  War Diaries (or Paris Diaries, 1941-1944??) seems to have been translated into English and published by Columbia University press at some point, but I’ve never managed to find a copy and have yet to splurge on the French Pleiade edition of a few years ago.


While reading [Maurice Pillet’s Thebes, Palais et Necropoles], I again realized how thoroughly, albeit on a lower level, our museum-like existence corresponds to the cult of the dead among the Egyptians.  Our mummy of culture parallels their mummy of the human image, and our anxiety about history matches their anxiety about metaphysics: we are driven by the fear that our magical expression could go under in the river of time.  Our resting in the bosom of the pyramids and in the solitude of caverns amid artworks, writings, implements, icons of God, jewelry, and rich funeral goods is aimed at eternity, albeit in a more subtle fashion.

Books are the costumes …

From Ernst Junger’s Alladin’s Problem:

I could tell from my very first visit to his library that he possessed an inner order.  For literati, books are the costumes by which they judge one another.  Hume, Machiavelli, Josephus Flavius, Ranke in long, brownish golden rows – there is a mood in which books directly radiate substance.

The hour of John Barleycorn’s subtlest power

From Jack London’s John Barleycorn.  I’m curious to know whether Malcolm Lowry had read this work.  He references Sea Wolf, Valley of the Moon, and The Jacket in Under the Volcano but does so when speaking of Hugh’s roving life  – ‘he had been reading too much Jack London’ – rather than the Consul’s alcoholism.  Given the so perfect correspondences of thought, however, it almost seems an instance of Lowry – always fiercely insistent on the originality of his work – hiding a possibly influential predecessor.

There are, broadly speaking, two types of drinkers. There is the man whom we all know, stupid, unimaginative, whose brain is bitten numbly by numb maggots; who walks generously with wide-spread, tentative legs, falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants. He is the type that gives rise to the jokes in the funny papers.

The other type of drinker has imagination, vision. Even when most pleasantly jingled, he walks straight and naturally, never staggers nor falls, and knows just where he is and what he is doing. It is not his body but his brain that is drunken. He may bubble with wit, or expand with good fellowship. Or he may see intellectual spectres and phantoms that are cosmic and logical and that take the forms of syllogisms. It is when in this condition that he strips away the husks of life’s healthiest illusions and gravely considers the iron collar of necessity welded about the neck of his soul. This is the hour of John Barleycorn’s subtlest power. It is easy for any man to roll in the gutter. But it is a terrible ordeal for a man to stand upright on his two legs unswaying, and decide that in all the universe he finds for himself but one freedom—namely, the anticipating of the day of his death. With this man this is the hour of the white logic (of which more anon), when he knows that he may know only the laws of things—the meaning of things never. This is his danger hour. His feet are taking hold of the pathway that leads down into the grave.

The author has lied here

From the Duc de Saint-Simon’s Memoires:

The memoirs of M. de La Rouchefoucauld appeared, and my father was curious to see there the affairs of his time.

(There follows one of Saint-Simon’s typically convoluted matters of honor and intrigue, all aimed at making the elder Saint-Simon look a liar, etc.)

My father felt so vividly the brutality of this slander that he launched himself at a pen and put in the margin: “The author has lied here.”  Not content with what he had just done, he went to the bookseller, whom he had to track down first since the work was not sold publicly at its first appearance. He asked to see his copies – begged, promised, threatened and did it all so effectively that he got him to show them.  At once he took up a pen and added the same marginal note to all of them.  You can imagine the astonishment of the bookseller – and that he was not long in informing M. de La Rouchefoucauld of what had just happened to his copies.  You can believe as well that the latter was outraged at this.  This caused a great stir at the time …


Il parut des Mémoires de M. de La Rochefoucauld; mon père fut curieux d’y voir les affaires de son temps.


Mon père sentit si vivement l’atrocité de la calomnie, qu’il se jeta sur une plume et mit à la marge: L’auteur en a menti. Non content de ce qu’il venait de faire, il s’en alla chez le libraire qu’il découvrit, parce que cet ouvrage ne se débitait pas publiquement dans cette première nouveauté. Il voulut voir ses exemplaires, pria, promit, menaça et fit si bien qu’il se les fit montrer. Il prit aussitôt une plume et mit à tous la même note marginale. On peut juger de l’étonnement du libraire, et qu’il ne fut pas longtemps sans faire avertir M. de La Rochefoucauld de ce qui venait d’arriver à ses exemplaires. On peut croire aussi que ce dernier en fut outré. Cela fit grand bruit alors …


A laughing matter only at Versailles

From the Duc de Saint-Simon’s Memoires.

Mademoiselle, the great Mademoiselle, as she was called to distinguish her from the daughter of Monseiur, or, to call her by her name, Mlle de Montpensier, eldest daughter of Gaston and the only one from his first marriage, died in her palace in the Luxembourg on Sunday April 5 (1693)


Her funeral rites were observed in full and her body was watched over for several days … There occurred here a quite absurd incident.  In the middle of the day and with the whole ceremony underway, the urn, which was on a sideboard and contained the entrails, shattered with an incredible noise and a stench both sudden and intolerable.  At that very instant some of the ladies swooned in fright, others took flight.  The heralds and psalmodists were smothered at the doors along with the crowd who also fled.  The confusion was extreme.  Most people won their way to the garden and the surrounding avenues.  It was the entrails, poorly embalmed, which through their fermentation had caused this crash.  Everything was perfumed and set back up, and this fright became a common subject for jokes.  These entrails were carried to the Celestins, the heart to Val-de-Grace, and the body brought to Saint-Denis ….


Mademoiselle, la grande Mademoiselle, qu’on appelait [ainsi] pour la distinguer de la fille de Monsieur, ou, pour l’appeler par son nom, Mlle de Montpensier, fille aînée de Gaston, et seule de son premier mariage, mourut en son palais de Luxembourg, le dimanche 5 avril,


Sa pompe funèbre se fit en entier, et son corps fut gardé plusieurs jours ….. Il y arriva une aventure fort ridicule. Au milieu de la journée et toute la cérémonie présente, l’urne, qui était sur une crédence et qui contenait les entrailles, se fracassa avec un bruit épouvantable et une puanteur subite et intolérable. À l’instant voilà les dames les unes pâmées d’effroi, les autres en fuite. Les hérauts d’armes, les feuillants qui psalmodiaient, s’étouffaient aux portes avec la foule qui gagnait au pied. La confusion fut extrême. La plupart gagnèrent le jardin et les cours. C’étaient les entrailles mal embaumées qui, par leur fermentation, avaient causé ce fracas. Tout fut parfumé et rétabli, et cette frayeur servit de risée. Ces entrailles furent portées aux Célestins, le coeur au Val-de-Grâce, et le corps conduit à Saint-Denis…


It needs a Delian diver

Two anecdotes from Diogenes Laertius on the difficulty of Heraclitus:

They say that Euripides, giving him [Socrates] a work of Heraclitus to read, asked him what he thought of it, and he replied: ‘The part I understand is excellent, and so too is, I dare say, the part I do not understand; but it needs a Delian diver to get to the bottom of it (2.22).


The story told by Ariston of Socrates, and his remarks when he came upon the book of Heraclitus, which Euripides brought him, I have mentioned in my Life of Socrates. However, Seleucus the grammarian says that a certain Croton relates in his book called The Diver that he said work of Heraclitus was first brought into Greece by one Crates, who further said it required a Delian diver not to be drowned on it (9.12)

Delian diver seemed a curiously specific image, especially since the Greek ( Δηλίου γέ τινος δεῖται κολυμβητοῦ) lacks the pleasant alliteration of the English.  In a casual search I found something of an overly ingenious interpretation for the phrase offered by one scholar.  The overwrought summation is as follows:

In conclusion, the expression attributed to Socrates that a Delian diver was required
to comprehend the book by Heraclitus must be understood in a mocking and
metaphorical sense. Thus, and according to this interpretation, not only is a diver
required to reach its depths, but he must necessarily be Delian. This means that he must be someone versed in the arcane oracles of the god Apollo to be able to move freely in the sibylline depths of Heraclitean thought. This explains why an answer that was supposed to be witty and ingenious, put in Socrates’ mouth  with the intention of producing a comical effect, had resource to the island of Delos, ‘the transparent’, ‘The clear’, to refer to the deep water diver. The superficial and literal sense of a Delian diver alluding to an actual pearl or sponge fisherman form that island does not fit with the comical context in which it was expressed, nor with Socrates’ incisive irony, nor, obviously, with the enigmatic and pretentious Heraclitean style. If, conversely, the notion of a Delian diver is understood not as a reference to a true diver from that island, but a metaphorical locution to describe the difficulty to manage the enigmatic and sibylline depths of Heraclitean thought, the hidden meaning of that expression is disclosed. And paraphrasing Diogenes Laertius’ epigram again, only with the aid of the Delian diver, the deep Delian waters become clearer and brighter than sunlight.

I’m somewhat simpler a person and find the sponge diving process a convincing enough metaphor by itself, without recourse to torturing out a pun on Delos.  Wikipedia gives me the following:

When sponge diving, the crew went out into the Mediterranean Sea in a small boat, and used a cylindrical object with a glass bottom to search the sea floor for sponges. When one was found, a diver went overboard to get it. Free diving, he was usually naked and carried a 15 kilograms (33 lb) skandalopetra, a rounded stone tied on a rope to the boat, to take him down to the bottom quickly. The diver then cut the sponge loose from the bottom and put a special net around it. Depth and bottom time depended on the diver’s lung capacity. They often went down about 30 metres (100 ft) for up to 5 minutes



But hats off to the martyrs

From Ernst Junger’s Eumeswil:

“The political trend is always to be observed, partly as a spectacle, partly for one’s own safety. The liberal is dissatisfied with regime; the anarch passes through their sequence – as inoffensively as possible – like a suite of rooms. This is the recipe for anyone who cares more about the substance of the world than its shadow – the philosopher, the artist, the believer.” (124)


The anarch is no individualist, either. He wishes to present himself neither as a Great Man nor as a Free Spirit. His own measure is enough for him; freedom is not his goal; it is his property. He does not come on as foe or reformer: one can get along nicely with him in shacks or in palaces. Life is too short and too beautiful to sacrifice for ideas, although contamination is not always avoidable. But hats off to the martyrs.” (280)