It is all a question of chronology

From Le Temps retrouvé (4.315-6):


Saint-Loup had just come back from Balbec. I learnt later, indirectly, that he had made unsuccessful advances to the manager of the restaurant. The latter owed his position to the money he had inherited from M. Nissim Bernard. He was, in fact, none other than the young waiter whom in the past Bloch’s uncle had “protected.” But wealth in his case had brought with it virtue and it was in vain that Saint-Loup had attempted to seduce him. Thus, by a process of compensation, while virtuous young men abandon themselves in their later years to the passions of which they have at length become conscious, promiscuous youths turn into men of principle from whom any Charlus who turns up too late on the strength of old stories will get an unpleasant rebuff. It is all a question of chronology.

Saint-Loup revenait de Balbec. J’appris plus tard indirectement qu’il avait fait de vaines tentatives auprès du directeur du restaurant. Ce dernier devait sa situation à ce qu’il avait hérité de M. Nissim Bernard. Il n’était autre, en effet que cet ancien jeune servant que l’oncle de Bloch « protégeait ». Mais sa richesse lui avait apporté la vertu. De sorte que c’est en vain que Saint-Loup avait essayé de le séduire. Ainsi par compensation, tandis que des gens vertueux s’abandonnent, l’âge venu, aux passions dont ils ont enfin pris conscience, des adolescents faciles deviennent des hommes à principe contre lesquels des Charlus, venus sur la foi d’anciens récits mais trop tard, se heurtent désagréablement. Tout est affaire de chronologie.


avant d’avoir déversé encore quelques pots de merde sur la tête de mes semblables

From a letter of Flaubert’s to Ivan Turgenev (Nov. 8 1879):

I too sometimes feel quite old, quite tired, worn down to the marrow. No matter! – I go on and I wouldn’t want to die before I’ve again overturned some shitpots on the heads of my fellow man.

Moi aussi je me sens parfois bien vieux, bien las, éreinté jusqu’aux moelles. N’importe ! – je continue et je ne voudrais pas crever avant d’avoir déversé encore quelques pots de merde sur la tête de mes semblables.

Who, with our spleens, would all themselves laugh mortal

From Measure for Measure (2.2.115ish), Isabella to Angelo:

Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.

It no longer shocked anyone and that was all about it

From Proust’s Le Temps retrouvé (v.4 pg. 305 of the Pleiade). I think most failures to appreciate Proust’s commentaries on the laws of flux governing public and private opinion could be solved by ctrl+f replacing Dreyfus with whatever the most recent hub of contention had been.

In society (and this social phenomenon is only the application of a much more general psychological law) whether novelties are reprehensible or not, they only excite consternation until they have been assimilated and defended by reassuring elements. As it had been with Dreyfusism, so it was with the marriage of Saint-Loup and Odette’s daughter, a marriage people protested against at first. Now that people met everyone they knew at the Saint-Loups’, Gilberte might have had the morals of Odette herself, people would have gone there just the same and would have agreed with Gilberte in condemning undigested moral novelties like a dowager-duchess. Dreyfusism was now integrated in a series of highly respectable and customary things. As to asking what it amounted to in itself, people now thought as little about accepting as formerly about condemning it. It no longer shocked anyone and that was all about it.

Dans le monde (et ce phénomène social n’est, d’ailleurs, qu’une application d’une loi psychologique bien plus générale), les nouveautés coupables ou non n’excitent l’horreur que tant qu’elles ne sont pas assimilées et entourées d’éléments rassurants. Il en était du dreyfusisme comme du mariage de Saint-Loup avec la fille d’Odette, mariage qui avait d’abord fait crier. Maintenant qu’on voyait chez les Saint-Loup tous les gens « qu’on connaissait », Gilberte aurait pu avoir les mœurs d’Odette elle-même que, malgré cela, on y serait « allé » et qu’on eût approuvé Gilberte de blâmer comme une douairière des nouveautés morales non assimilées. Le dreyfusisme était maintenant intégré dans une série de choses respectables et habituelles. Quant à se demander ce qu’il valait en soi, personne n’y songeait, pas plus pour l’admettre maintenant qu’autrefois pour le condamner. Il n’était plus « shocking ». C’était tout ce qu’il fallait.

Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons

From Othello (3.3.329-332):

Dangerous conceits are, in their natures, poisons.
Which at the first are scarce found to distaste,
But with a little act upon the blood.
Burn like the mines of Sulphur

And a similar notion, less direly construed – from Tristram Shandy v.2 ch.19:

I mention this, not only as matter of hypothesis or conjecture upon the progress and establishment of my father’s many odd opinions,—but as a warning to the learned reader against the indiscreet reception of such guests, who, after a free and undisturbed entrance, for some years, into our brains,—at length claim a kind of settlement there,——working sometimes like yeast;—but more generally after the manner of the gentle passion, beginning in jest,—but ending in downright earnest.

And strings of words up the backside of humanity

From Leonardo Sciascia’s The Day of the Owl (Il Giorno della Civetta)

‘The people, democracy,’ said the old man, sitting down again, slightly out of breath after his demonstration of how to walk on people’s horns, ‘are fine inventions; things dreamed up at a desk by people who know how to shove one word up the backside of another, and strings of words up the backside of humanity, with all due respect… With all due respect to humanity, I mean.

«Il popolo, la democrazia» disse il vecchio rassettandosi a sedere, un po’ ansante per la dimostrazione che aveva dato del suo saper camminare sulle corna della gente «sono belle invenzioni: cose inventate a tavolino, da gente che sa mettere una parola in culo all’altra e tutte le parole nel culo dell’umanità, con rispetto parlando… Dico con rispetto parlando per l’umanità…

The point that was common to one being and another

From Proust’s Le Temps retrouvé (296/7 in v.4 of the Pleiade, with the updated Moncrieff translation):

…insofar as my own character was concerned, my incapacity for looking and listening, which the passage from the Journal had so painfully illustrated to me, was nevertheless not total. There was in me a personage who knew more or less how to look, but it was an intermittent personage, coming to life only in the presence of some general essence common to a number of things, these essences being its nourishment and its joy. Then the personage looked and listened, but at a certain depth only, without my powers of superficial observation being enhanced. Just as a geometer, stripping things of their sensible qualities, sees only the linear substratum beneath them, so the stories that people told escaped me, for what interested me was not what they were trying to say but the manner in which they said it and the way in which this manner revealed their character or their foibles; or rather I was interested in what had always, because it gave me specific pleasure, been more particularly the goal of my investigations: the point that was common to one being and another. As soon as I perceived this my intelligence—until that moment slumbering, even if sometimes the apparent animation of my talk might disguise from others a profound intellectual torpor—at once set off joyously in pursuit, but its quarry then, for instance the identity of the Verdurin drawing-room in various places and at various times, was situated in the middle distance, behind actual appearances, in a zone that was rather more withdrawn. So the apparent, copiable charm of things and people escaped me, because I had not the ability to stop short there—I was like a surgeon who beneath the smooth surface of a woman’s belly sees the internal disease which is devouring it. If I went to a dinner-party I did not see the guests: when I thought I was looking at them, I was in fact examining them with X-rays.

en ce qui me concernait personnellement, mon incapacité de regarder et d’écouter, que le journal cité avait si péniblement illustrée pour moi, n’était pourtant pas totale. Il y avait en moi un personnage qui savait plus ou moins bien regarder, mais c’était un personnage intermittent, ne reprenant vie que quand se manifestait quelque essence générale, commune à plusieurs choses, qui faisait sa nourriture et sa joie. Alors le personnage regardait et écoutait, mais à une certaine profondeur seulement, de sorte que l’observation n’en profitait pas. Comme un géomètre qui, dépouillant les choses de leurs qualités sensibles, ne voit que leur substratum linéaire, ce que racontaient les gens m’échappait, car ce qui m’intéressait, c’était non ce qu’ils voulaient dire, mais la manière dont ils le disaient, en tant qu’elle était révélatrice de leur caractère ou de leurs ridicules ; ou plutôt c’était un objet qui avait toujours été plus particulièrement le but de ma recherche parce qu’il me donnait un plaisir spécifique, le point qui était commun à un être et à un autre. Ce n’était que quand je l’apercevais que mon esprit — jusque-là sommeillant, même derrière l’activité apparente de ma conversation, dont l’animation masquait pour les autres un total engourdissement spirituel — se mettait tout à coup joyeusement en chasse, mais ce qu’il poursuivait alors — par exemple l’identité du salon Verdurin dans divers lieux et divers temps — était situé à mi-profondeur, au delà de l’apparence elle-même, dans une zone un peu plus en retrait. Aussi le charme apparent, copiable, des êtres m’échappait parce que je n’avais plus la faculté de m’arrêter à lui, comme le chirurgien qui, sous le poli d’un ventre de femme, verrait le mal interne qui le ronge. J’avais beau dîner en ville, je ne voyais pas les convives, parce que quand je croyais les regarder je les radiographiais.

Every society produces the particular kind of imposture that suits it best, so to speak

From Leonardo Sciascia’s Council of Egypt (Il Consiglio d’Egitto). The crime referred to is the wholesale invention – through forged manuscript written in nonsense Arabic script – first of Sicilian history during the Islamic period and then during the early Norman occupation. The latter project touches on the inherited rights of the nobility.

“It’s true,” Di Blasi said, “every society produces the particular kind of imposture that suits it best, so to speak. Our society is a fraud, a judicial, literary, human fraud – yes, I would say human too, for it is fraudulent in its very essence. So our society has produced, quite simply and naturally, a reverse fraud—”

“You are squeezing philosophy out of a common crime,” Don Saverio Zarbo said.

“Oh no, this is no common crime. This is one of those facts which help define a society, a historical moment. If culture in Sicily were not, more or less consciously, a fraud, if it were not a tool in the hands of the barons, and therefore an imposture, an endless imposture and falsification of reality – well, I tell you this, Abbot Vella’s adventure would have been impossible. I’ll say more: Abbot Vella has not committed a crime; reversing the terms, he has produced a parody of a crime, of the crime that we in Sicily have been committing for centuries.”

“In effetti“ disse l’avvocato Di Blasi ”ogni società genera il tipo d’impostura che, per così dire, le si addice. E la nostra società, che è di per sé impostura, impostura giuridica, letteraria, umana… Umana, sì: addirittura dell’esistenza, direi… La nostra società non ha fatto che produrre, naturalmente, ovviamente, l’impostura contraria…”

“Voi spremete filosofia da un volgarissimo crimine” disse don Saverio Zarbo.

“Eh no, questò non è un volgarissimo crimine. Questo e uno di quel fatti che servono a definire una società, un momento storico. In realtà, se in Sicilia la cultura non fosse, più o meno coscientemente, impostura, se non fosse strumento in mano del potere baronale, e quindi finzione, continua finzione e falsificazione della realtà della storia… Ebbene, io vi dico che l’avventura dell’abate Vella sarebbe stata impossibile… Dico di più: l’abate Vella non ha commesso un crimine, ha soltanto messo su la parodia di un crimine, rovesciandone i termini… Di un crimine che in Sicilia si consuma da secoli…”

Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe

From Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (Briefe an einen jungen Dichter), the opening to the first letter. The English is the Stephen Mitchell.

Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.

Mit nichts kann man ein Kunst-Werk so wenig berühren als mit kritischen Worten: es kommt dabei immer auf mehr oder minder glückliche Mißverständnisse heraus. Die Dinge sind alle nicht so faßbar und sagbar, als man uns meistens glauben machen möchte; die meisten Ereignisse sind unsagbar, vollziehen sich in einem Raume, den nie ein Wort betreten hat, und unsagbarer als alle sind die Kunst-Werke, geheimnisvolle Existenzen, deren Leben neben dem unseren, das vergeht, dauert.

Guardate che ‘l venir sù non vi nòi

From Purgatorio 9.76-93, with the Longfellow translation. I have a soft spot for Threshold Guardians in myth.

vidi una porta, e tre gradi di sotto
per gire ad essa, di color diversi,
e un portier ch’ancor non facea motto.

E come l’occhio più e più v’apersi,
vidil seder sovra ‘l grado sovrano,
tal ne la faccia ch’io non lo soffersi;

e una spada nuda avëa in mano,
che reflettëa i raggi sì ver’ noi,
ch’io dirizzava spesso il viso in vano.

“Dite costinci: che volete voi?”
cominciò elli a dire, “ov’ è la scorta?
Guardate che ‘l venir sù non vi nòi.”

“Donna del ciel, di queste cose accorta,”
rispuose ‘l mio maestro a lui, “pur dianzi
ne disse: ‘Andate là: quivi è la porta.’”

“Ed ella i passi vostri in bene avanzi,”
ricominciò il cortese portinaio:
“Venite dunque a’ nostri gradi innanzi.”

I saw a portal, and three stairs beneath,
Diverse in colour, to go up to it,
And a gate-keeper, who yet spake no word.

And as I opened more and more mine eyes,
I saw him seated on the highest stair,
Such in the face that I endured it not.

And in his hand he had a naked sword,
Which so reflected back the sunbeams tow’rds us,
That oft in vain I lifted up mine eyes.

“Tell it from where you are, what is’t you wish?”
Began he to exclaim; “where is the escort?
Take heed your coming hither harm you not!”

“A Lady of Heaven, with these things conversant,”
My Master answered him, “but even now
Said to us, ‘Thither go; there is the portal.'”

“And may she speed your footsteps in all good,”
Again began the courteous doorkeeper;*
“Come forward then unto these stairs of ours.”

*I’ve touched up Longfellow’s poorly aging ‘courteous janitor’