Detest bad music but do not make light of it

In Praise of Bad Music From Proust’s Les Plaisirs et Les Jours. If you make allowance for youthful preciousness of sentiment and elitism, this is one of the work’s more clear (and concise) evidences of what Proust would become by way of social observer.

I’ve discovered there’s an English translation of these stories (by Joachim Neugroschel) so I can quote that instead of doing a hack job.

In Praise of Bad Music

Detest bad music but do not make light of it. Since it is played, or rather sung, far more frequently, far more passionately than good music, it has gradually and far more thoroughly absorbed human dreams and tears. That should make it venerable for you. Its place, nonexistent in the history of art, is immense in the history of the emotions of societies. Not only is the respect – I am not saying love – for bad music a form of what might be called the charity of good taste, or its skepticism, it is also the awareness of the important social role played by music. How many ditties, though worthless in an artist’s eye, are among the confidants chosen by the throng of romantic and amorous adolescents. How many songs like “Gold Ring” or “Ah, slumber, slumber long and deep,” whose pages are turned every evening by trembling and justly famous hands, are soaked with tears from the most beautiful eyes in the world: and the purest maestro would envy this melancholy and voluptuous homage of tears, the ingenious and inspired confidants that ennoble sorrow, exalt dreams, and, in exchange for the ardent secret that is confided in them, supply the intoxicating illusion of beauty.

Since the common folk, the middle class, the army, the aristocracy have the same mailmen – bearers of grief that strikes them or happiness the overwhelms them – they have the same invisible messengers of love, the same beloved confessors. These are the bad composers. The same annoying jingle, to which every well-born, well-bred ear instantly refuses to listen, has received the treasure of thousands of souls and guards the secret of thousdands of lives: it has been their living inspiration, their consolation, which is always ready, always half-open on the music stand of the piano – and it has been their dreamy grace and their ideal. Certain arpeggios, certain reentries of motifs have made the souls of more than one lover or dreamer vibrate with the harmonies of paradise or the very voice of the beloved herself. A collection of bad love songs, tattered from overuse, has to touch us like a cemetery or a village. So what if the houses have no style, if the graves are vanishing under tasteless ornaments and inscriptions? Before an imagination sympathetic and respectful enough to conceal momentarily its aesthetic disdain, that dust may release a flock of souls, their breaks holding the still verdant dream that gave them an inkling of the next world and let them rejoice or weep in this world.

Détestez la mauvaise musique, ne la médisez pas. Comme on la joue, la chante bien plus, bien plus passionnément que la bonne, bien plus qu’elle elle s’est peu à peu remplie du rêve et des larmes des hommes. Qu’elle vous soit par là vénérable. Sa place, nulle dans l’histoire de l’Art, est immense dans l’histoire sentimentale des sociétés. Le respect, je ne dis pas l’amour, de la mauvaise musique n’est pas seulement une forme de ce qu’on pourrait appeler la charité du bon goût ou son scepticisme, c’est encore la conscience de l’importance du rôle social de la musique. Combien de mélodies, de nul prix aux yeux d’un artiste, sont au nombre des confidents élus par la foule des jeunes gens romanesques et des amoureuses. Que de «bagues d’or», de «Ah! reste longtemps endormie», dont les feuillets sont tournés chaque soir en tremblant par des mains justement célèbres, trempés par les plus beaux yeux du monde de larmes dont le maître le plus pur envierait le mélancolique et voluptueux tribut,—confidentes ingénieuses et inspirées qui ennoblissent le chagrin et exaltent le rêve, et en échange du secret ardent qu’on leur confie donnent l’enivrante illusion de la beauté. Le peuple, la bourgeoisie, l’armée, la noblesse, comme ils ont les mêmes facteurs, porteurs du deuil qui les frappe ou du bonheur qui les comble, ont les mêmes invisibles messagers d’amour, les mêmes confesseurs bien-aimés. Ce sont les mauvais musiciens. Telle fâcheuse ritournelle, que toute oreille bien née et bien élevée refuse à l’instant d’écouter, a reçu le trésor de milliers d’âmes, garde le secret de milliers de vies, dont elle fut l’inspiration vivante, la consolation toujours prête, toujours entr’ouverte sur le pupitre du piano, la grâce rêveuse et l’idéal. Tels harpèges, telle «rentrée» ont fait résonner dans l’âme de plus d’un amoureux ou d’un rêveur les harmonies du paradis ou la voix même de la bien-aimée. Un cahier de mauvaises romances, usé pour avoir trop servi, doit nous toucher comme un cimetière ou comme Un village. Qu’importe que les maisons n’aient pas de style, que les tombes disparaissent sous les inscriptions et les ornements de mauvais goût. De cette poussière peut s’envoler, devant une imagination assez sympathique et respectueuse pour taire un moment ses dédains esthétiques, la nuée des âmes tenant au bec le rêve encore vert qui leur faisait pressentir l’autre monde, et jouir ou pleurer dans celui-ci.

Reward that only rovers earn

From Vita Sackville-West’s The Land, an old-fashioned poem in the tradition of Virgil’s Georgics. This passage is the only thing I know of it and came to mind when rereading Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story (Traumnovelle) last night. The full text is online here.

But meadow, shaw, and orchard keep
The glaucous country like a hilly sea
Pure in its monotone. Sad eyes that tire
Of dangerous landscape, sadder minds
That search impossible regions of their quest,
Find clement haven after truancy,
A temperate answer, and a makeshift rest.
This is the thing familiar, known;
The safety that the wanderer finds,
Out of the world, one thing his own.
A pause, a lull in journeying, return
After the querying and astonishment;
Reward that only rovers earn
Who have strayed, departed from the peace,
Whether in soul or body widely flown,
Gone after Arabian Nights, the Golden Fleece,
And come back empty-handed, as they went.

Every man is a divinity in disguise, a god playing the fool

I spent too long on this very minor problem. La Mort de Baldassare Silvande, the first story in baby Proust’s Les Plaisirs et Les Jours has as opening epigraph an unsourced quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson – «Apollon gardait les troupeaux d’Admète, disent les poètes; chaque homme aussi est un dieu déguisé qui contrerait le fou.». The notes in both my Pleaide and Folio texts point to Proust using an 1851 translation of Emerson’s essays by Emile Montegut – Essais de philosophie américaine. And the quote is indeed there on page 78 as part of the First Series essay History (Histoire):

Unfortunately, this doesn’t match the much briefer English in my Library of America edition:

The Prometheus Vinctus is the romance of skepticism. Not less true to all time are the details of that stately apologue. Apollo kept the flocks of Admetus, said the poets. When the gods come among men, they are not known. Jesus was not; Socrates and Shakspeare were not. Antaeus was suffocated by the gripe of Hercules, but every time he touched his mother earth his strength was renewed.

But it turns out the LOA edition uses the revised 1847 text, not the original 1841 and the editor didn’t see fit to comment on this significant change in the textual notes. So here is the full 1841 – restoring Montegut’s good name as translator and my equanimity.

How sad will it be if I turn out no better than I am!

From Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond (ch 14), a weightier passage than camel medication and an indication of the depth of reading and thinking that lies behind the novel’s surface lightness:

It took me some time to make out the Greek inscription, which was about saving me from my sins, and I hesitated to say this prayer, as I did not really want to be saved from my sins, not for the time being, it would make things too difficult and too sad. I was getting into a stage when I was not quite sure what sin was, I was in a kind of fog, drifting about without clues, and this is liable to happen when you go on and on doing something, it makes a confused sort of twilight in which everything is blurred, and the next thing you know you might be stealing or anything, because right and wrong have become things you do not look at, you are afraid to, and it seems better to live in a blur. Then come the times when you wake suddenly up, and the fog breaks, and right and wrong loom through it, sharp and clear like peaks of rock, and you are on the wrong peak and know that, unless you can manage to leave it now, you may be marooned there for life and ever after. Then, as you don’t leave it, the mist swirls round again, and hides the other peak, and you turn your back on it and try to forget it and succeed.

Another thing you learn about sin, it is not one deed more than another, though the Church may call some of them mortal and others not, but even the worst ones are only the result of one choice after another and part of a chain, not things by themselves, and adultery, say, is chained with stealing sweets when you are a child, or taking another child’s toys, or the largest piece of cake, or letting someone else be thought to have broken something you have broken yourself, or breaking promises and telling secrets, it is all one thing and you are tied up with that chain till you break it, and the Church calls it not being in a state of grace, which means that you can get no help, so it is a vicious circle, and the odds are that you never get free. And, while I am on sin, I have often thought that it is a most strange thing that this important part of human life, the struggle that almost every one has about good and evil, cannot now be talked of without embarrassment, unless of course one is in church. It goes on just the same as it always has, for as T. S. Eliot points out,

The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change.
However you disguise it, this thing does not change,
The perpetual struggle of good and evil.

But now you cannot talk about it when it is your own struggle, you cannot say to your friends that you would like to be good, they would think you were going Buchmanite, or Grahamite, or something else that you would not at all care to be thought. Once people used to talk about being good and being bad, they wrote about it in letters to their friends, and conversed about it freely; the Greeks did this, and the Romans, and then, after life took a Christian turn, people did it more than ever, and all through the Middle Ages they did it, and through the Renaissance, and drama was full of it, and heaven and hell seemed for ever round the corner, with people struggling on the borderlines and never knowing which way it was going to turn out, and in which of these two states they would be spending their immortality, and this led to a lot of conversation about it all, and it was extremely interesting and exciting. And they went on talking about their conflicts all through the seventeenth and eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and James Boswell, who of course was even more interested in his own character and behaviour than most people are, wrote to his friends, “My great object is to attain a proper conduct in life. How sad will it be if I turn out no better than I am!” and the baronet he wrote this to did not probably think it peculiar, and Dr. Johnson thought it very right and proper, though some people like Horace Walpole naturally found Boswell a strange being, and when he had to meet him Horace “made as dry answers as an unbribed oracle.” But they went on like this through most of the nineteenth century, even when they were not evangelicals or tractarians or anything like that, and nineteenth century novels are full of such interesting conversations, and the Victorian agnostics wrote to one another about it continually, it was one of their favourite topics, for the weaker they got on religion the stronger they got on morals, which used to be the case more then than now.

I am not sure when all this died out, but it has now become very dead. I do not remember that when I was at Cambridge we talked much about such things, they were thought rather CICCU, and shunned, though we talked about everything else, such as religion, love, people, psycho-analysis, books, art, places, cooking, cars, food, sex, and all that. And still we talk about all these other things, but not about being good or bad. You can say you would like to be a good writer, or painter, or architect, or swimmer, or carpenter, or cook, or actor, or climber, or talker, or even, I suppose, a good husband or wife, but not that you would like to be a good person, which is a desire you can only mention to a clergyman, whose shop it is, and who must not object or make dry answers like an unbribed oracle, but must listen and try to assist you in your vain ambition.

The Eliot quote is from his play The Rock and reprinted in Choruses from The Rock in Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (pg. 148) – also with some commentary in the newer The Poems of T.S. Eliot (v.1, pg 154). Below is the full speech in which this section occurs:

The lot of man is ceaseless labour,
Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,
Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.
I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know
That it is hard to be really useful, resigning
The things that men count for happiness, seeking
The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting
With equal face those that bring Ignominy,
The applause of all or the love of none.
All men are ready to invest their money
But most expect dividends.
I say to you: Make perfect your will.
I say. take no thought of the harvest,
But only of proper sowing.
The world turns and the world changes,
But one thing does not change.
In all of my years, one thing does not change.
However you disguise it, this thing does not change:
The perpetual struggle of Good and Evil
Forgetful, you neglect your shrines and churches;
The men you are in these times deride
‘What has been done of good, you find explanations
To satisfy the rational and enlightened mind.
Second, you neglect and belittle the desert.
The desert is not remote in southern tropics,
The desert is not only around the comer,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.
The good man is the builder, if he build what is good.
I will show you the things that are now being done,
And some of the things that were long ago done,
That you may take heart. Make perfect your Will.
Let me show you the work of the humble. Listen.

And no less significant – the Boswell quote from an early letter (1763, when Boswell was 23) to an older friend, Sir David Dalrymple:

My great object is to attain a proper conduct in life. How sad will it be, if I turn no better than I am; I have much vitality, which leads me to dissipation and folly. This, I think, I can restrain. But I will be moderate, and not aim at a stiff sageness and buckram correctness. I must, however, own to you, that I have at bottom a melancholy cast; which dissipation relieves by making me thoughtless, and therefore, an easier, tho’ a more contemptible, animal. I dread a return of this malady. I am always apprehensive of it. . . . Tell me . . . if years do not strengthen the mind, and make it less susceptible of being hurt? and if having a rational object will not keep up my spirits?

Camel sedative. Dose according to need.

From Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond (ch 12). I more and more understand the fame of the novel’s opening line – “Take my camel, dear.”

[Halide] and I looked at aunt Dot’s things, to see what she had taken with her. Her miscellaneous collection of medicine bottles was here; it was a largish collection, because she did not know what most of them were, or for what complaints, on account of chemists not caring to say more on the labels than “The Pills “, “The Tablets “, “The Mixture “, and other non-committal tides, so aunt Dot took a great many of these anonymous bottles about with her on her travels and ate and drank them at random when she ailed. She always said this anonymity was owing to chemists not being able to read the handwriting of the doctors who wrote the prescriptions, or understand the abbreviations of the Latin words used, so that they did not know whether they were making up the things prescribed or another set of things altogether, and thought it better that the labels should be non-committal. I once asked a doctor why he did not write better, and also in English, and put the words in full. He said that the patient might in that case understand it, which would not do. Chemists too think that this would not do, and that if a patient knew what he was taking it might even prove fatal, because of nerves, and the name of the remedy might make him guess what illness he had, which would prove still more fatal. For the same reason, nurses who take temperatures will not ever tell the patient what the thermometer says, because that too might end in death, so that people who like to know how they are getting on have to hide their private thermometers somewhere about them and take their own temperatures. Anyhow, aunt Dot had left her array of bottles and pill-boxes in her medicine bag, and I thought I would take them along with me and eat and drink some of them when I felt weak, and one would counteract another, so they would do no harm.

[and in the next chapter]

Then I went back to the camel and took it to the stables where it had lodged and gave it mash and root and things, and said, “Lie down. Go to sleep,” and it knelt down and chewed, and I thought that later I would give it something from a bottle that aunt Dot had among her medicines which was only labelled “The Mixture” by the chemist, but aunt Dot had written on it “Camel sedative. Dose according to need.” I thought that either she had never given the camel any of this stuff, or that the stuff was no good. However, I decided to give it a dose later, in case it made it stamp and kick and roar less in the night, as this annoys the people near it a good deal.

We must look to the conclusion of every matter, and see how it shall end

From Book 1 ch 32 of Herodotus. I recently found a near full set of the Fondazione Lorenzo Valla text and commentary and to hindsight justify the purchase am now unexpectedly rereading Herodotus. Timeline mismatches aside, Solon’s visit to Croesus remains one of the most iconic summaries of Greek pessimism.

Thus then, Croesus, the whole of man is but chance. Now if I am to speak of you, I say that I see you very rich and the king of many men. But I cannot yet answer your question, before I hear that you have ended your life well. For he who is very rich is not more blest than he who has but enough for the day, unless fortune so attend him that he ends his life well, having all good things about him. Many men of great wealth are unblest, and many that have no great substance are fortunate. Now the very rich man who is yet unblest has but two advantages over the fortunate man, but the fortunate man has many advantages over the rich but unblest: for this latter is the stronger to accomplish his desire and to bear the stroke of great calamity; but these are the advantages of the fortunate man, that though he be not so strong as the other to deal with calamity and desire, yet these are kept far from him by his good fortune, and he is free from deformity, sickness, and all evil, and happy in his children and his comeliness. If then such a man besides all this shall also end his life well, then he is the man whom you seek, and is worthy to be called blest; but we must wait till he be dead, and call him not yet blest, but fortunate. Now no one (who is but man) can have all these good things together, just as no land is altogether self-sufficing in what it produces: one thing it has, another it lacks, and the best land is that which has most; so too no single person is sufficient for himself: one thing he has, another he lacks; but whoever continues in the possession of most things, and at last makes a gracious end of his life, such a man, O King, I deem worthy of this title. We must look to the conclusion of every matter, and see how it shall end, for there are many to whom heaven has given a vision of blessedness, and yet afterwards brought them to utter ruin.”

οὕτω ὦν Κροῖσε πᾶν ἐστὶ ἄνθρωπος συμφορή. ἐμοὶ δὲ σὺ καὶ πλουτέειν μέγα φαίνεαι καὶ βασιλεὺς πολλῶν εἶναι ἀνθρώπων· ἐκεῖνο δὲ τὸ εἴρεό με, οὔκω σε ἐγὼ λέγω, πρὶν τελευτήσαντα καλῶς τὸν αἰῶνα πύθωμαι. οὐ γάρ τι ὁ μέγα πλούσιος μᾶλλον τοῦ ἐπ᾿ ἡμέρην ἔχοντος ὀλβιώτερος ἐστί, εἰ μή οἱ τύχη ἐπίσποιτο πάντα καλὰ ἔχοντα εὖ τελευτῆσαι τὸν βίον. πολλοὶ μὲν γὰρ ζάπλουτοι ἀνθρώπων ἀνόλβιοι εἰσί, πολλοὶ δὲ μετρίως ἔχοντες βίου εὐτυχέες. ὁ μὲν δὴ μέγα πλούσιος ἀνόλβιος δὲ δυοῖσι προέχει τοῦ εὐτυχέος μοῦνον, οὗτος δὲ τοῦ πλουσίου καὶ ἀνόλβου πολλοῖσι· ὃ μὲν ἐπιθυμίην ἐκτελέσαι καὶ ἄτην μεγάλην προσπεσοῦσαν ἐνεῖκαι δυνατώτερος, ὃ δὲ τοῖσιδε προέχει ἐκείνου· ἄτην μὲν καὶ ἐπιθυμίην οὐκ ὁμοίως δυνατὸς ἐκείνῳ ἐνεῖκαι, ταῦτα δὲ ἡ εὐτυχίη οἱ ἀπερύκει, ἄπηρος δὲ ἐστί, ἄνουσος, ἀπαθὴς κακῶν, εὔπαις, εὐειδής. εἰ δὲ πρὸς τούτοισι ἔτι τελευτήσει τὸν βίον εὖ, οὗτος ἐκεῖνος τὸν σὺ ζητέεις, ὁ ὄλβιος κεκλῆσθαι ἄξιος ἐστί· πρὶν δ᾿ ἂν τελευτήσῃ, ἐπισχεῖν, μηδὲ καλέειν κω ὄλβιον ἀλλ᾿ εὐτυχέα. τὰ πάντα μέν νυν ταῦτα συλλαβεῖν ἄνθρωπον ἔοντα ἀδύνατον ἐστί, ὥσπερ χώρη οὐδεμία καταρκέει πάντα ἑωυτῇ παρέχουσα, ἀλλὰ ἄλλο μὲν ἔχει ἑτέρου δὲ ἐπιδέεται· ἣ δὲ ἂν τὰ πλεῖστα ἔχῃ, αὕτη ἀρίστη. ὣς δὲ καὶ ἀνθρώπου σῶμα ἓν οὐδὲν αὔταρκες ἐστί· τὸ μὲν γάρ ἔχει, ἄλλου δὲ ἐνδεές ἐστι· ὃς δ᾿ ἂν αὐτῶν πλεῖστα ἔχων διατελέῃ καὶ ἔπειτα τελευτήσῃ εὐχαρίστως τὸν βίον, οὗτος παρ᾿ ἐμοὶ τὸ οὔνομα τοῦτο ὦ βασιλεῦ δίκαιος ἐστὶ φέρεσθαι. σκοπέειν δὲ χρὴ παντὸς χρήματος τὴν τελευτήν, κῇ ἀποβήσεται· πολλοῖσι γὰρ δὴ ὑποδέξας ὄλβον ὁ θεὸς προρρίζους ἀνέτρεψε.”

To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole

Borges’ prologue to Adolfo Bioy-Casares’ The Invention of Morel (from the NYRB edition). This is the second time I’ve read the novel(la?) and while I can’t quite share Borges’ enthusiasm I do support his line of reasoning from this intro (minus the Proust comment):

AROUND 1880 Stevenson noted that the adventure story was regarded as an object of scorn by the British reading public, who believed that the ability to write a novel without a plot, or with an infinitesimal, atrophied plot, was a mark of skill. In The Dehumanization of Art (1925) Jose Ortega y Gasset, seeking the reason for that scorn, said, “I doubt very much whether an adventure that will interest our superior sensibility can be invented today,” and added that such an invention was “practically impossible.” On other pages, on almost all the other pages, he upheld the cause of the “psychological” novel and asserted that the pleasure to be derived from adventure stories was nonexistent or puerile. This was undoubtedly the prevailing opinion in 1880, 1925, and even 1940. Some writers (among whom I am happy to include Adolfo Bioy Casares) believe they have a right to disagree. The following, briefly, are their reasons.

The first of these (I shall neither emphasize nor attenuate the fact that it is a paradox) has to do with the intrinsic form of the adventure story. The typical psychological novel is formless. The Russians and their disciples have demonstrated, tediously, that no one is impossible. A person may kill himself because he is so happy, for example, or commit murder as an act of benevolence. Lovers may separate forever as a consequence of their love. And one man can inform on another out of fervor or humility. In the end such complete freedom is tantamount to chaos. But the psychological novel would also be a “realistic” novel, and have us forget that it is a verbal artifice, for it uses each vain precision (or each languid obscurity) as a new proof of realism. There are pages, there are chapters in Marcel Proust that are unacceptable as inventions, and we unwittingly resign ourselves to them as we resign ourselves to the insipidity and the emptiness of each day. The adventure story, on the other hand, does not propose to transcribe reality: it is an artificial object, no part of which lacks justification. It must have a rigid plot if it is not to succumb to the mere sequential variety of The Golden Ass, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, or the Quixote.

I have given one reason of an intellectual sort; there are others of an empirical nature. We hear sad murmurs that our century lacks the ability to devise interesting plots. But no one attempts to prove that if this century has any ascendancy over the preceding ones it lies in the quality of its plots. Stevenson is more passionate, more diverse, more lucid, perhaps more deserving of our unqualified friendship than is Chesterton; but his plots are inferior. De Quincey plunged deep into labyrinths on his nights of meticulously detailed horror, but he did not coin his impression of “unutterable and self-repeating infinities” in fables comparable to Kafka’s. Ortega y Gasset was right when he said that Balzac’s “psychology” did not satisfy us; the same thing could be said, of his plots. Shakespeare and Cervantes were both delighted by the antinomian idea of a girl who, without losing her beauty, could be taken for a man; but we find that idea unconvincing now. I believe I am free from every superstition of modernity, of any illusion that yesterday differs intimately from today or will differ from tomorrow; but I maintain that during no other era have there been novels with such admirable plots as The Turn of the Screw, The Trial, Voyage to the Center of the Earth, and the one you are about to read, which was written in Buenos Aires by Adolfo Bioy Casares.

Detective stories—another popular genre in this century that cannot invent plots—tell of mysterious events that are later explained and justified by reasonable facts. In this book Adolfo Bioy Casares easily solves a problem that is perhaps more difficult. The odyssey of marvels he unfolds seems to have no possible explanation other than hallucination or symbolism, and he uses a single fantastic but not supernatural postulate to decipher it. My fear of making premature or partial revelations restrains me from examining the plot and the wealth of delicate wisdom in its execution. Let me say only that Bioy renews in literature a concept that was refuted by St. Augustine and Origen, studied by Louis-Auguste Blanqui, and expressed in memorable cadences by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

In Spanish, works of reasoned imagination are infrequent and even very rare. The classics employed allegory, the exaggerations of satire, and, sometimes, simple verbal incoherence. The only recent works of this type I remember are a story in Leopoldo Lugones’s  Las fuerzas extranas and one by Santiago Dabove: now unjustly forgotten.  The Invention of Morel (the title alludes filially to another island inventor, Moreau) brings a new genre to our land and our language.
I have discussed with the author the details of his plot. I have reread it. To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.
— Jorge Luis Borges

The art of thinking about things consists in the art of stopping thinking before the fatal moment

From Thomas Bernhard’s Walking. An author singularly unsuited to extracts.

When we do something, we may not think about why we are doing what we are doing, says Oehler, for then it would suddenly be totally impossible for us to do anything. We may not make what we are doing the object of our thought, for then we would first be the victims of mortal doubt and, finally, of mortal despair. Just as we may not think about what is going on around us and what has gone on and what will go on, if we do not have the strength to break off our thinking about what happens around us and what has happened and what will happen, that is about the past, the present and the future at precisely the moment when this thinking becomes fatal for us. The art of thinking about things consists in the art, says Oehler, of stopping thinking before the fatal moment. However, we can, quite consciously, drag out this fatal moment, says Oehler, for a longer or a shorter time, according to circumstances. But the important thing is for us to know when the fatal moment is. But no one knows when the fatal moment is, says Oehler, the question is, is it possible that the fatal moment has not yet come and will always not yet come? But we cannot rely on this. We may never think, says Oehler, how and why we are doing what we are doing, for then we would be condemned, even if not instantaneously, but instantaneously to whatever degree of awareness we have reached regarding that question, to total inactivity and to complete immobility. For the clearest thought, that which is the deepest and, at the same time, the most transparent, is the most complete inactivity and the most complete immobility, says Oehler. We may not think about why we are walking, says Oehler, for then it would soon be impossible for us to walk, and then, to take things to their logical conclusion. Everything soon becomes impossible, just as when we are thinking why we may not think, why we are walking and so on, just as we may not think how we are walking, how we are not walking, that is standing still, just as we may not think how we, when we are not walking and standing still, are thinking and so on. We may not ask ourselves: why are we walking? as others who may (and can) ask themselves at will why they are walking. The others, says Oehler, may (and can) ask themselves anything, we may not ask ourselves anything. In the same way, if it is a question of objects, we may also not ask ourselves, just as if it is not a question of objects (the opposite of objects). What we see we think, and, as a result, do not see it, says Oehler, whereas others have no problem in seeing what they are seeing because they do not think what they see. What we call perception is really stasis, immobility, as far as we are concerned, nothing. Nothing. What has happened is thought, not seen, says Oehler. Thus quite naturally when we see, we see nothing, we think everything at the same time.

And shortly after, an oblique continuation:

We are mathematicians, says Oehler, or at least we are always trying to be mathematicians. When we think, it is less a case of philosophy, says Oehler, more one of mathematics. Everything is a tremendous calculation, if we have set it up from the outset in an unbroken line, a very simple calculation. But we are not always in the position of keeping everything that we have calculated intact within our head, and we break off what we are thinking and are satisfied with what we see, and are not surprised for long that we rest content with what we see, with millions upon millions of images that lie on, or under, one another and constantly merge and displace each other.

Rising out of chasms of self-contempt and flippant disbelief

The Tanners from Robert Walser’s Berlin Stories:

The intoxicating gleam of the dark, metropolitan streets, the lights, the people, my brother. I myself, living in my brother’s apartment. I shall never forget this simple two-bedroom dwelling. It always seemed to me as if this apartment contained a sky complete with stars, moon, and clouds. Marvelous romanticism, dulcet forebodings! My brother would spend half the night at the theater, where he was making the stage sets. At three or four in the morning he would come home, and I would still be sitting there, enchanted by all the thoughts, all the lovely images wafting through my head; it was as if I no longer required sleep, as if thinking, writing, and waking were my lovely, restorative sleep, as if writing for hours and hours at my desk comprised my world, my pleasure, relaxation and peace. The dark-colored desk, so antiquated it might have been an old magician. When I pulled open its delicately worked small drawers, I imagined that sentences, words, and maxims would come leaping out. The snow-white curtains, the singing gaslight, the elongated dark room, the cat and all the becalmed waves of the long nights filled with thoughts. From time to time I would go visit the merry maids down at the girls’ tavern, that was also part of it. To speak of the cat once more: she always sat on the pages filled with writing that I had laid to one side and would blink at me with her unfathomable golden eyes so strangely, with such a questioning look. Her presence was like the presence of an odd, silent fairy. Perhaps I owe this dear, silent animal a great deal. How can one know? The further I progressed in my writing, the more I felt as if I were being watched over and protected by a kindly entity. A soft, delicate large veil floated about me. But at this juncture I should also mention the liqueur that stood upon the sideboard. I partook of it as freely as I was permitted and able. Everything all around me had a soothing, invigorating influence. Certain states, circumstances, and circles are there only once, never again to appear, or else only when one is least expecting it. Are not expectations and presuppositions unholy, impertinent, and indelicate? The poet must ramble and rove, he must courageously lose himself, must always venture everything he owns, and he has to hope, or rather he is permitted: permitted to hope. —I recall that I began writing the book with a hopeless flutter of words, with all sorts of mindless sketchings and scribblings. —I never dreamed I might be capable of completing something serious, beautiful, and good. —Better ideas and, along with them, the courage to create arrived only gradually, but also all the more mysteriously, rising out of chasms of self-contempt and flippant disbelief. —It was like the morning sun rising up in the sky. Evening and morning, past and future and the so delightful present seemed to lie at my feet; before me the countryside quickened with life, and I felt as though I could grasp human activity, all of human life in my hands, that’s how vividly I saw it. —One image gave way to another, and the thoughts that occurred to me played with one another like happy, graceful, well-mannered children. Filled with rapture, I clung to my joyful main idea, and as I industriously went on writing more and more, its context came into view.

Helping to put to flames the great libraries whose loss he now deplored

A sample character sketch from Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond (ch4). Another author I’ve long meant to read and now wish I’d taken up sooner.

Father Chantry-Pigg said later on that this [refusal to register arguments] made it difficult to discuss theology with Turks, as one had been used to do with Byzantines, who had reasoned all the time, reasoning themselves in and out of all the heresies in the world, and no doubt they could easily have reasoned themselves into the Anglican heresy. Father Chantry-Pigg always spoke as if he had just parted from the Byzantines, and was apt to sigh when he mentioned them, though, as aunt Dot pointed out, he had missed them by five centuries. His crusading ancestor, Sir Jocelyn de Chantry, had found them, but, being of the Latin Church, had dealt with them unkindly. The fact was that Father Chantry-Pigg would not really have liked the Byzantines much had he encountered them, though he would have preferred them to Turks and other Moslems. He was not actually a sympathetic clergyman, and, had he been with his ancestor for the great attack on Constantinople in 1203, he would have been among those who, brandishing the cross above their heads, massacred and pillaged and looted in the name of Latin Christendom, helping to put to flames the great libraries whose loss he now deplored. He was better at condemning than at loving; aunt Dot used to wonder what Christ would have said to him.