I see the better … Ovid, Petrarch, and Foscolo

Spoken by Medea in the Metamorphoses as she first argues down her passion for Jason

Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor (7.20-21)

I see the better and approve, but I pursue the worse

Petrarch later adapts this line as the conclusion to one of his Canzoniere written after Laura’s death:

né mai peso fu greve
quanto quel ch’i’ sostengo in tale stato:
ché co la morte a lato
cerco del viver mio novo consiglio,
et veggio ‘l meglio, et al peggior m’appiglio (264.132-136)

Nor ever was weight so oppressive
as that which I sustain in such a state:
For with death at my side
I seek my new plan for living,
And I see the better, and yet to the worse do I cling

And Ugo Foscolo in his Sonnetti takes it back up over four centuries later:

Tal di me schiavo, e d’altri, e della sorte,
conosco il meglio ed al peggior mi appiglio,
e so invocare e non darmi la morte. (2.12-14)

So much a slave of myself, of others, and of the fates,
I know the better and cling to the worse,
and can pray for death but not give it to myself

It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all

Reading Ovid’s version of the Narcissus story in the Metamorphoses made me wonder if Melville had it specifically in mind in the early chapters of Moby Dick.  I remember vaguely that he had bought a set of classics in translation in the the years (1849?) leading into the writing of the novel but can’t recall what beyond the tragedians and Homer were included there.  I only half-entertain the idea because the divide between Ahab and Ishmael can, by one obviously reductionist view, be collapsed to the former being unable to recognize the whale as ‘shadow of a reflected form with no substance of its own’ and his accordingly being incapable of letting it go.

And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all (Moby Dick ch 1)

What [Narcissus] sees he knows not; but that which he sees he burns for, and the same delusion mocks and allures his eyes.  O fondly foolish boy, why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image? What you seek is nowhere; but turn yourself away and the object of your love will be no more.  That which you behold is but the shadow of a reflected form and has no substance of its own.  With you it comes, with you it stays, and it will go with you – if you can go. (Loeb edition translated by Frank Justus Miller, pg 155)


Quid videat, nescit: sed quod videt, uritur illo,
atque oculos idem, qui decipit, incitat error.
430Credule, quid frusta simulacra fugacia captas?
quod petis, est nusquam; quod amas, avertere, perdes.
Ista repercussae, quam cernis, imaginis umbra est:
nil habet ista sui; tecum venitque manetque,
tecum discedet, si tu discedere possis. (Metamorphoses 3.428-434)

A spectral version of moral reasoning can survive in the world of the trolley problems

From Roger Scruton’s On Human Nature (pgs 95-96):

A spectral version of moral reasoning can survive in the world of the trolley problems; but it exists there detached from its roots in the person-to-person encounter, lending itself to mathematical treatment partly because the deskbound philsopher has thought the normal sourches of moral sentiment away.

That is not to deny that moral reasoning makes comparisons. When Anna Karenina ask herself whether it is right to leave Karenin and to set up house with Vronksy, she is asking herself which of two courses of action would be better. But although she is making a comparative judgment, it is not one that can be resolved by a calculation… Her dilemma is not detachable from its peculiar circumstances … Dilemmas of this kind exist because we are bound to each other by obligations and attachments, and one way of being a bad person is to think they can be resolved by moral arithmetic. Suppose Anna were to reason that it is better to satisfy two healthy young people and frustrate one old one than to satisfy one old person and frustrate two young ones, by a factor of 2.5 to 1: ergo I am leaving. What would we think, then, of her moral seriousness.

These men much despise us

From Herodotus’ Histories (4.134) as Darius’ invading Persian army finally catches the Scythians and force a battle:

When the Scythians had lined up in battle order [against the Persians] a hare ran into the space between the armies, and each of the Scythians gave chase as they saw it.  As the Scythians fell into disorder and shouting, Darius asked what the uproar in the opposing army was.  Learning that they were chasing a hare, he said to those with whom he was accustomed to discuss everything: “These men much despise us.”

Τεταγμένοισι δὲ τοῖσι Σκύθῃσι λαγὸς ἐς τὸ μέσον διήιξε. Τῶν δὲ ὡς ἕκαστοι ὥρων τὸν λαγὸν ἐδίωκον. Ταραχθέντων δὲ τῶν Σκυθέων καὶ βοῇ χρεωμένων, εἴρετο ὁ Δαρεῖος τῶν ἀντιπολεμίων τὸν θόρυβον· πυθόμενος δὲ σφέας τὸν λαγὸν διώκοντας, εἶπε ἄρα πρὸς τούς περ ἐώθεε καὶ τὰ ἄλλα λέγειν « Οὗτοι ὧνδρες ἡμέων πολλὸν καταφρονέουσι … »

English ‘despise’ is maybe a little harsh for καταφρονειν but its Latin root – directional prefix de (down) + spicere (look, regard) – best mirrors the structure of the Greek κατα (down) + φρονειν (think, consider).

I will tell you, but we must not frighten the ladies

From book 2 of Cardinal de Retz’s  Memoires.  It’s less the punchline that’s charming than his scene construction – the carriage load of (drunken) friends stopped on the way home from partying and now variously rocking, sobbing, and praying in fear.

In short, we did not set out till peep of day (it being summer-time), and the days at the longest, and were got no further than the bottom of the Descent of Bonshommes, when all on a sudden the coach stopped. I, being next the door opposite to Mademoiselle de Vendome, bade the coachman drive on. He answered, as plain as he could speak for his fright, “What! would you have me drive over all these devils here?” I put my head out of the coach, but, being short-sighted from my youth, saw nothing at all. Madame de Choisy, who was at the other door with M. de Turenne, was the first in the coach who found out the cause of the coachman’s fright. I say in the coach, for five or six lackeys behind it were already crying “Jesu Maria” and quaking with fear.
Madame de Choisy cried out, upon which M. de Turenne threw himself out of the coach, and I, thinking we were beset by highwaymen, leaped out on the other side, took one of the footmen’s hangers, drew it, and went to the other side to join M. de Turenne, whom I found with his eyes fixed on something, but what I could not see. I asked him what it was, upon which he pulled me by the sleeve, and said, with a low voice, “I will tell you, but we must not frighten the ladies,” who, by this time, screamed most fearfully. Voiture began his Oremus, and prayed heartily. You, I suppose, knew Madame de Choisy’s shrill tone; Mademoiselle de Vendome was counting her beads; Madame de Vendome would fain have confessed her sins to the Bishop of Lisieux, who said to her, “Daughter, be of good cheer; you are in the hands of God.” At the same instant, the Comte de Brion and all the lackeys were upon their knees very devoutly singing the Litany of the Virgin Mary.
M. de Turenne drew his sword, and said to me, with the calm and undisturbed air he commonly puts on when he calls for his dinner, or gives battle, “Come, let us go and see who they are.”
“Whom should we see?” said I, for I believed we had all lost our senses.
He answered, “I verily think they are devils.”

When we had advanced five or six steps I began to see something which I thought looked like a long procession of black phantoms. I was frightened at first, because of the sudden reflection that I had often wished to see a spirit, and that now, perhaps, I should pay for my incredulity, or rather curiosity. M. de Turenne was all the while calm and resolute. I made two or three leaps towards the procession, upon which the company in the coach, thinking we were fighting with all the devils, cried out most terribly; yet it is a question whether our company was in a greater fright than the imaginary devils that put us into it, who, it seems, were a parcel of barefooted reformed Augustine friars, otherwise called the Black Capuchins, who, seeing two men advancing towards them with drawn swords, one of them, detached from the fraternity, cried out, “Gentlemen, we are poor, harmless friars, only come to bathe in this river for our healths.” M. de Turenne and I went back to the coach ready to die with laughing at this adventure.

There’s a similar scene in Don Quixote (part 1, chapter 20).


It is incomprehensible to me how many clothes you are taking off

From Robert Musil’s diaries (Tagebucher 1 – 286,7), as Musil follows his wife’s preparations for bed.

Towards the end of November.  I have gone to bed early, I feel I have caught a slight cold, indeed I’m perhaps running a temperature.  The electric light is switched on; I see the ceiling or the curtain over the door of the balcony.  You began to get undressed after I had already finished doing so; I am waiting.  I simply listen to you.  Incomprehensible walking to and fro.  You come to put something on your bed; what can it be? You open the cupboard, put something in or take something out, I hear it shut again.  You put hard objects on the table, others on the marble top of the chest of drawers. You are constantly in motion.  Then I hear the familiar sounds of hair being let down and brushed.

Water rushing into the wash-basin.  Before that, clothes being slipped off; now more of them; it is incomprehensible to me how many clothes you are taking off.  The shoes.  Then your stockings move to and fro constantly just as the shoes did before.  Your pour water into glasses, three, four times, one after the other.  In my visualization I have long exhausted every conceivable possibility, whereas you, in reality, clearly still have things to do.  I hear you putting on your nightdress.  But still you are far from finished.

This was deemed offensive for its accuracy in my house.

In these worthy circumstances, I entered the secret order of Shandeans

From Ernst Junger’s The Adventurous Heart: Figures and Capriccios (pg. 8, Telos press edition), a further elaboration of the episode mentioned at the end of Storm of Steel

During the skirmishes near Bapaume, I had Tristram Shandy in a handy little volume in my map case, and it was still with me when we stood ready by Favreuil.  Since we were kept waiting back at the artillery placements from morning until late afternoon, things soon got very boring, though our position was not without danger.  So I began to turn its pages, and before long the entwined style, riddles with an assortment of lights, established itself as a secret accompanying voice in a chiaroscuro harmony with the outer circumstances.  After having read a few chapters with many interruptions, we finally got the order to attack; I put the book away and by sunset I already lay wounded on the ground.

I picked up the thread again in the field hospital, as if all that lay between had been a dream or belonged to the content of the book itself, as the activation of some extraordinary mental power.  I was given morphine, and I continued reading, at one moment awake, at the next in a half-twilight, so that a variety of different mental states chopped up and re-parceled the myriad layers of the text one more time.  Fever attacks combated with Burgundy and codeine, artillery barrages, and bomb-droppings over our zone, through which a streaming retreat had already begun, during which we were sometimes completely forgotten – all this only increased the entanglements, so that today I am left with only a blurred memory of those days, of a half-sensitive, half-frenzied agitation in which even a volcanic eruption would not have astonished me, and during which poor old Yorick and honest Uncle Toby were the most trustworthy characters that presented themselves.

In these worthy circumstances, I entered the secret order of Shandeans, to which I have remained loyal to this day.

Some Galled Goose of Winchester

The concluding lines of Pandar’s epilogue from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida:

As many as be here of panders’ hall,
Your eyes, half out, weep out at Pandar’s fall;
Or if you cannot weep, yet give some groans,
Though not for me, yet for your aching bones.
Brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade,
Some two months hence my will shall here be made:
It should be now, but that my fear is this,
Some galled goose of Winchester would hiss:
Till then I’ll sweat and seek about for eases,
And at that time bequeathe you my diseases.

The jokes all aim for the audience, either their venereal diseases and accompanying pains (“eyes, half out”, “aching bones”, “galled” as OED’s “affected with galls or painful swelling”) or their status as pimps and prostitutes (“brethren and sisters of the hold-door trade”, “galled goose of Winchester”).

This latter phrase is the only one not generally clear from the context alone, but it turns out the term ‘Winchester goose’ has its own OED entry with eight examples dating from 1598-1751.  One of these, Stephen Whatley’s 1751 England Gazetteer records the origin in its entry for Southwark:

“In the times of popery, here were no less than 18 houses on the Bankside, licensed by the Bps. of Winchester…to keep whores, who were, therefore, commonly called Winchester Geese.”

Although prostitution was not legal in the city proper, Southwark wasn’t brought under London jurisdiction until much later and instead fell to the charge of the Bishops of Winchester who owned much of the area’s land.  The bishops licensed the prostitutes of the area, who then became playfully known as his geese.  Unfortunately, I can’t quickly find anything on the rationale behind the choice of ‘geese’ – it seems too convenient for it to be a sort of pun on the bishop’s flock (which is usually referring to sheep anyway).

He was quite brutally sent off

From Memoires of the Duc de Saint-Simon, who always took the time to record some good banter.  We are early in 1695 here.  The edition on my phone is different from my paper copy – the Pleiade set edited by Yves Coirault – but this is somewhere around pg. 215 in volume 1 of that edition.

Harlay had gone to Maestricht to sound the Dutch; but these approaches only puffed up the enemy and drew them the further from peace in proportion as they judged it more necessary for us … They even had the impudence to insinuate to Harlay, whose thinness and paleness were extraordinary, that they took him as a sample of the reduced state in which France found itself.  He, unphased, answered pleasantly that if they would give him the time to send for his wife, they would be able to conceive of another opinion of the state of the realm.  In fact, she was extremely fat and very high in color.  He was quite brutally sent off …

Harlay était allé à Maestricht sonder les Hollandais; mais ces démarches ne firent qu’enorgueillir les ennemis et les éloigner de la paix à proportion qu’ils nous la jugeaient plus nécessaire …. Ils eurent même l’impudence de faire sentir à M. d’Harlay, dont la maigreur et la pâleur étaient extraordinaires, qu’ils le prenaient pour un échantillon de la réduction où se trouvait la France. Lui, sans se fâcher, répondit plaisamment que, s’ils voulaient lui donner le temps de faire venir sa femme, ils pourraient en concevoir une autre opinion de l’état du royaume. En effet, elle était extrêmement grosse et était très haute en couleur. Il fut assez brutalement congédié, et se hâta de regagner notre frontière.