Commonplace Book

So now listen up. We need to get these boxes the hell out of the warehouse. Meaning, if you are thinking of buying a set of figures, stop thinking, stop thinking immediately, and just do it. Feel, don’t think. Spend, don’t think. Be an American. Spend money you don’t have on something cool you don’t need. It’s only money. You’ll make more. I assure you, you will. But we might not make more of these Chinese-produced plastic hate effigies. Really, now, what would you rather be – safe, sane and sad, or devil-may-carefree and (momentarily) happy? Think about it. No wait, don’t think, stop, just do it!

"Every poem"

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal, dated October 1848:

Every poem must be made up of lines that are poems.

via zhurnaly: Poetic Lines

(originally posted 2007-07-12, updated for micro.blog)

"Callous Complacence"

Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time newsletter reproduced this fascinating document from WWI war hero and poet Siegfried Sassoon, denouncing the conduct of the war at great personal risk. It was originally printed in The Times in 1917.

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed. On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.

Jeanette Winterson - We Need Poetry

From one of Jeanette Winterson’s latest columns, this one on why we need poetry:

And in the way of things, the memory gets used to being fed something more useful than crossword puzzles, and will deliver you the lines you need, when you need them. Poetry, because it has rhythm and because it is made out of breath, is easy to remember. It fits under the tongue like a slowly dissolving pill, but there are no side-effects – well maybe there is one; the next time you open your mouth to speak, something of the poem stays with you, and laces your response. In that way, poetry makes poets out of all of us, enlivening our personal capacity to speak with feeling and with an honesty that comes of being able to find the right words.

Phillips on death

The world without the people who matter to us is not the same world and so not the world at all. Life becomes progressively stranger as we get older - and we become increasingly frantic to keep it familiar, to keep it in order - because people keep changing the world for us by dying out (mourning is better described as orientation, the painful wondering whether it is worth re-placing oneself).

Adam Phillips, Side Effects

Orson Welles on art & remembrance

Courtesy Netflix, I saw Orson Welles’ F for Fake, a fascinating document. I saw it, listened to the commentaries, and saw it again. It’s a dense, layered, rich lasagna that uses fakery to talk about fakery. It has some bravura editing for the time (1974 or 1976, sources vary) and includes some very personal Wellesian material.

The Wikipedia page on F for Fake includes the following passage, where Welles muses on the anonymous artists and craftsmen who built Chartres Cathedral.

Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust; to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish. Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash: the triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life … we’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced - but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.

(originally posted in 2006-04-15, updated for micro.blog)

"The most painful coincidence in recorded history"

From NY Times’ William Grimes review of the book Beyond Coincidence:

The award for the most painful coincidence in recorded history must go to the poet Simon Armitage, who chanced upon a used copy of a book of his poems in a trash bin outside a thrift store. On the title page was the following inscription, in his own handwriting: “To Mum and Dad.”


via

The Revenge of the Novelist

From the NY Times obit of John Fowles.

As much as it frustrated some of his readers, Mr. Fowles always believed he had done the right thing by leaving the endings of his most celebrated novels open-ended. But he was not above bending his own rules when the occasion called for it.

He once told an interviewer that he had received a sweet letter from a cancer patient in New York who wanted very much to believe that Nicholas, the protagonist of “The Magus,” was reunited with his girlfriend at the end of the book - a point Mr. Fowles had deliberately left ambiguous. “Yes, of course they were,” Mr. Fowles replied.

By chance, he had received a letter the same day from an irate reader taking issue with the ending of “The Magus.” “Why can’t you say what you mean, and for God’s sake, what happened in the end?” the reader asked. Mr. Fowles said he found the letter “horrid” but had the last laugh, supplying an alternative ending to punish the correspondent: “They never saw each other again.”

"Due to..."

From Melvyn Bragg’s latest In Our Time newsletter:

Monica Grady’s other mission seems to be to stop her students saying “due to” when they ought to say “owing to” or “because of”. She pointed out that in the case of libraries, babies and rent you can use “due to”, everything else is “owing to” or “because of”.

True Work

I had this on my office wall many many years ago, and can’t find the source again. But I think I remember it word-for-word:

True Work is that which occupies the mind and the heart, as well as the hands. It has a beginning and an ending. It is the overcoming of difficulties one thinks important for the sake of results one thinks valuable.

Jacques Barzun

"Those were softer days"

I read to Liz before she goes to bed, and lately, we’ve settled on memoirs. The first was a joyous treat, Milking the Moon.

Tonight, we just finished Barbara Holland’s When All The World Was Young.

These quotes are from the end of the book, where at 18, after being turned out of her family’s house and dwelling in deep depression, she gets a job at Hecht’s department store in Washington, DC, and her life takes a sharp turn to happiness. The time is the early 1950s.

It was an era of lavish employment. Since then, the Personnel Department, with its echo of “personal,” has been replaced by Human Resources, with its echo of iron ore, petroleum, and other profit potentials, but those were softer days…

She describes how companies in that era kept on incompetent employees, provided free access to a doctor, and other perks.

Cynics might say that this corporate kindliness was designed to forestall the unions–which it did–but kindness is kindness and I lapped it up like a stray cat. Starting out in this generous atmosphere shaped my whole working life as a lark: jobs should be fun and bosses gentle, if not this one, then the next; plenty more where this one came from. Nobody nowadays expects to have fun at work. They want to get rich instead, but I could see from the start that the two were probably incompatible; too much pay would mean taking the work seriously. Believing it was important. The less money I needed to make, the more elbow room I’d have for fun. I held firm to this resolve through good times and bum times…

…Virginia Woolf, speaking from a different world, said what we needed, what women needed, was “a room of one’s own” and a modest allowance so we wouldn’t be distracted by money worries. But under what guarantee? What happens when our benefactor whimsically cancels the lease on our room and cuts off our funds? No, Mrs. Woolf. A job, Mrs. Woolf.

(originally posted 2005-05-28, updated for micro.blog)

"Making commodes and dining tables"

From Essays in Love by Alain de Botton:

It is hard to imagine Christianity having achieved such success without a martyr at its head. If Jesus had simply led a quiet life in Galilee, making commodes and dining tables and at the end of his life published a slim volume titled My Philosophy of Life before dying of a heart attack, he would not have acquired the status he did.

(originally posted 2005-05-22, updated for micro.blog)

Arnold Bennett quotes

Quotes from Journal Of Things New and Old by Arnold Bennett (about 1923)

All political parties in all countries disappear sooner or later, except the Conservative, and the Conservative is immortal because it is never for long divided against itself. How many times in Britain has the Liberal Party split? The first and most powerful instinct of Tories is self-preservation. They do not really want anything but the status quo.


The best part of a holiday is that daily habits and rituals are broken.


When a good novel falls away at the end or near the end, it’s because the writer simply ran out of power. He miscalculated his creative strength. Nobody can pour a quart out of a pint pot.

[Man, was that ever true in the case of Stephen King’s Wizard and Glass. The middle part of the book was strong and powerful. The coda in the Emerald City was anti-climactic and sodden by comparison. And I could tell King was trying to goose it along, trying to make the characters frightened and anxious. But it only made me annoyed. The book’s real story had been told and this last bit was simply the connective tissue to get them moving back along the Path of the Beam.]


[Attending the performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko lifted his spirits regarding his in-progress novel.]

A novel in process of creation has to be lifted up … [maybe] again and again. The large mood for it has to be recaptured again and again, to work its miracle there is nothing so efficacious as the sight or hearing of a great work of art – any art. Many times have I gone into the National Gallery, or to a fine concert … to recover the right mood.

An artist engaged in a work ought never to read or see or hear second-class stuff. If he does, he realizes the resemblances between his work and the second-class; and is discouraged. Whereas if he sticks to first-class stuff, he realizes the resemblances between his work and it, and is enheartened thereby.


It is well not to chatter too much about what one is doing, and not to betray a too-pained sadness at the spectacle of a whole world deliberately wasting so many hours out of every day, and therefore not really living. It will be found, ultimately, that in taking care of one’s self, one has quite all one can do.


Can you deny that when you have something definite to look forward to at eventide, something that is to employ all your energy, the thought of that something gives a glow and a more intense vitality to the whole day?

(originally posted 2005-05-22, updated for micro.blog)

The Limits of Reading

Anthony Lane, in an excellent appraisal of PG Wodehouse in The New Yorker (April 19 & 26, 2004 - not online), includes this quote from Marcel Proust:

Reading becomes dangerous when instead of waking us to the personal life of the spirit, it tends to substitute itself for it, when truth no longer appears to us as an ideal we can realize only through the intimate progress of our thought and the effort of our heart, but as a material thing, deposited between the leaves of books like honey ready-made by others, and which we have only to take the trouble of reaching for on the shelves of the libraries and then savoring passively in perfect repose of body and mind.

Lane, who loves Wodehouse in precisely measured doses, draws a good dividing line between artists of the first and second ranks (there are further ranks, of course). An artist of the first rank creates a world with clear and real correspondences to our world–“who returns us with a vengeance to our own travails.” I think of Chekhov’s stories of peasant and middle-class life, which, though they occur in a place and time so different from ours as to seem another world, resonate with the life I see around me every day.

An artist of the second rank, such as Wodehouse, Doyle, Tolkien, instead create a “complete alternative world, fully furnished and ready for occupation.” The worlds of Sherlock Holmes, Hobbits, and Bertram Wilberforce Wooster (and dare I say, “Star Trek”?) offer cozy cubbies to curl into, and there is real pleasure in that. I never want to give up those worlds.

Without denying Wodehouse’s mastery, Lane uses Proust’s quote to turn his essay to what happens when we stay too long in those worlds, as Wodehouse did and as Lane’s Uncle Eric did. Lane describes in his article how his Uncle Eric had two complete Wodehouse collections, one for upstairs, one for downstairs, all heavily annotated by himself in pencil. When he needed to look up a reference, I guess he needed to do it immediately. Uncle Eric never married and though he led a busy life, it ended rather narrowly, as a bit of a genteel hermit, without many friends apart from distant family.

A few quotes from Lane’s piece:

…When you fall afoul of the real world, your exploration of the unreal will grow ever more quizzical and devout. Comedy is still our least bestial way of admonishing the wreckage of our lives–no animal has ever laughed–but too much comedy, or nothing but comedy, has a subtle, feline habit of pushing our lives so far away from us that they cease, as if in a dream, to be our responsibility…The journey that is charted in Uncle Eric’s Wodehouse collection, in the self-persuading chatter of his annotations, is a journey away from the great things–from the predations of love and war–into the wavelike soothings of the small.

…Like many of us, [Uncle Eric] wanted the good life, or, failing that, the quiet life, and he found that it was most readily available between hard covers….There are times when the quest for good, or the belief that the good and quiet life are all that matters, can shrivel into a minor kind of evil–when the desire to be innocent, unfoxed by the dust and dirt of relationahips, and unscraped by the presence of people very different from ourselves, can dwindle into the loneliness of the bigot. We have to give a damn.