he [Mr. Andrew Culwin] had been, then and always, essentially a spectator, a humorous detached observer of the immense muddled variety show of life, slipping out of his seat now and then for a brief dip into the convivialities at the back of the house, but never, as far as one knew, showing the least desire to jump on the stage and do a “turn.”
He had always been possessed of a leisure which he had nursed and protected, instead of squandering it in vain activities. His carefully guarded hours had been devoted to the cultivation of a fine intelligence and a few judiciously chosen habits; and none of the disturbances common to human experience seemed to have crossed his sky. Nevertheless, his dispassionate survey of the universe had not raised his opinion of that costly experiment, and his study of the human race seemed to have resulted in the conclusion that all men were superfluous, and women necessary only because some one had to do the cooking.
From Antal Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend (pg. 14). With everything of his I read (and, now, reread) I find him – for his humor, self-aimed self-aware irony, and lightness of touch with his learning – more and more the author I most wish I’d had as a personal friend.
A colleague’s envy, when all is said and done, is the scholar’s one reward on earth. I didn’t tell him that in all likelihood I wouldn’t be publishing anything. My nature is to spend years amassing the material for a great work and, when everything is at last ready, I lock it away in a desk drawer and start something new.
From Edgar Allan Poe’s The Imp of the Perverse. A daily encounter.
an innate and primitive principle of human action, a paradoxical something, which we may call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term… Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable, but, in fact, there is none more strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible. I am not more certain that I breathe, than that the assurance of the wrong or error of any action is often the one unconquerable force which impels us, and alone impels us to its prosecution.
We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. We glow, we are consumed with eagerness to commence the work, with the anticipation of whose glorious result our whole souls are on fire. It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until to-morrow, and why? There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, using the word with no comprehension of the principle. To-morrow arrives, and with it a more impatient anxiety to do our duty, but with this very increase of anxiety arrives, also, a nameless, a positively fearful, because unfathomable, craving for delay. This craving gathers strength as the moments fly. The last hour for action is at hand. We tremble with the violence of the conflict within us,—of the definite with the indefinite—of the substance with the shadow. But, if the contest have proceeded thus far, it is the shadow which prevails,—we struggle in vain. The clock strikes, and is the knell of our welfare. At the same time, it is the chanticleer—note to the ghost that has so long overawed us. It flies—it disappears—we are free. The old energy returns. We will labor now. Alas, it is too late!
A Latin inscription from the walls of the Villa Careggi in Florence, as cited in Raymond Marcel’s Marsile Ficin (pg.293). I can’t find a picture of either this or the Democritus and Heraclitus fresco located nearby.
A bono in bonum omnia diriguntur Laetus inpraesens. Neque censum existimes, neque appetas dignitatem. Fuge excessum, fuge negotia. Laetus impraesens.
From Augustine’s Confessions (1.21). I’m trying, under influence of reading Petrarch and intellectual histories of the late medieval/early renaissance transition, finally to finish something of Augustine’s. I’ve always found him tiresome in rhetoric – too close to the inspiration for God in Monty Python saying ‘get on with it’ – but at least now I find him authentic as well. I sympathize with the spirit of much of what he says – mostly what he borrows from Plotinus – but feel his Old Testament materialist rhetoric too weighs down his far lighter Platonic leanings.
non te amabam, et fornicabar abs te, et fornicanti sonabat undique: “euge! euge!” amicitia enim mundi huius fornicatio est abs te et “euge! euge!” dicitur ut pudeat, si non ita homo sit.
I did not love you, and by separating from you I prostituted myself; and as I prostituted myself the cry resounded from every side: “Well done, well done!” For the love of this world is a physical infidelity to you, and the “Well done, well done!” is said in such a way as to make people ashamed, if that is not really the kind of people they are.
We went apple picking this past weekend to celebrate the apparent true launch of fall, and I somehow or other came home struck with the need to read Washington Irving. This is from the preface to his Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon
The following is from an imperfect draught of my reply [to Sir Walter Scott’s offer of job as editor of a review], which underwent some modifications in the copy sent:
“I cannot express how much I am gratified by your letter. I had begun to feel as if I had taken an unwarrantable liberty; but, somehow or other, there is a genial sunshine about you that warms every creeping thing into heart and confidence. Your literary proposal both surprises and flatters me, as it evinces a much higher opinion of my talents than I have myself.”
I then went on to explain that I found myself peculiarly unfitted for the situation offered to me, not merely by my political opinions, but by the very constitution and habits of my mind. “My whole course of life,” I observed, “has been desultory, and I am unfitted for any periodically recurring task, or any stipulated labor of body or mind. I have no command of my talents, such as they are, and have to watch the varyings of my mind as I would those of a weathercock. Practice and training may bring me more into rule; but at present I am as useless for regular service as one of my own country Indians or a Don Cossack.
“I must, therefore, keep on pretty much as I have begun; writing when I can, not when I would. I shall occasionally shift my residence and write whatever is suggested by objects before me, or whatever rises in my imagination; and hope to write better and more copiously by and by.
“I am playing the egotist, but I know no better way of answering your proposal than by showing what a very good-for-nothing kind of being I am.
From Aulus Gellius’ preface to Noctes Atticae – quoting Heraclitus, though in a variant of what is cited elsewhere.
The perusal of such collections will exhaust the mind through weariness or disgust, before it finds one or two notes which it is a pleasure to read, or inspiring to have read, or helpful to remember. I myself, on the contrary, having at heart that well-known saying of the famous Ephesian, “Much learning does not make a scholar,” did it is true busy and even weary myself in unrolling and running through many a scroll, working without cessation in all the intervals of business whenever I could steal the leisure; but I took few items from them, confining myself to those which, by furnishing a quick and easy short-cut, might lead active and alert minds to a desire for independent learning and to the study of the useful arts
quibus in legendis ante animus senio ac taedio languebit quam unum alterumve reppererit quod sit aut voluptati legere aut cultui legisse aut usui meminisse. Ego vero, cum illud Ephesii viri summe nobilis verbum cordi haberem, quod profecto ita est quibus in legendis ante animus senio ac taedio languebit quam unum alterumve reppererit quod sit aut voluptati legere aut cultui 12legisse aut usui meminisse. Ego vero, cum illud Ephesii viri summe nobilis verbum cordi haberem, quod profecto ita est πολυμαθίη νόον οὐ διδάσκει, ipse quidem volvendis transeundisque multis admodum voluminibus per omnia semper negotiorum intervalla in quibus furari otium potui exercitus defessusque sum, sed modica ex his eaque sola accepi quae aut ingenia prompta expeditaque ad honestae eruditionis cupidinem utiliumque artium contemplationem celeri facilique compendio ducerent, ipse quidem volvendis transeundisque multis admodum voluminibus per omnia semper negotiorum intervalla in quibus furari otium potui exercitus defessusque sum, sed modica ex his eaque sola accepi quae aut ingenia prompta expeditaque ad honestae eruditionis cupidinem utiliumque artium contemplationem celeri facilique compendio ducerent