Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Holbrook Jackson

My favourite image
of Holbrook Jackson
In the section ‘Of Pedigree Copies’ in his The Anatomy of Bibliomania, (George) Holbrook Jackson writes of the attraction of books “which are discriminated by the marks of precedent possessors, signatures, dedications, notes, memoranda, etc., or by recorded pedigrees showing a descent of distinguished ownership” (p.500). And he continues “How much more to be cherished are those books which bear the personal inscriptions of their authors, ex dono auctorem, volumes which the author gave in the pride of his heart to the poet who was his ‘Master’, to the critic whom he feared, to the friend with whom he was on terms of mutual admiration; to experience the strange unforgettable thrill at the sight of the self-same page that was once looked upon, even by the master whose writing it bears.” It is perhaps not surprising that Jackson left marks and more on some of his books, including pasting photographs into the front pages.

I’ve often thought the usual posed photos of Holbrook Jackson that you see on the internet do not portray the gentleness, the warmth or the quick intelligent and playful eye of the man. The commonly available pictures are staged to make the author look altogether too serious to my mind. How could the author of the delightful Bookman’s Holiday be the man in these photos? Holbrook Jackson was, we must remember, the editor of The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear, and he writes in his essay ‘Masters of Nonsense’ (which appears in Southward Ho! & Other Essays) “I do not think it is good for any one to be always sensible. … We live in a practical and business-like age, and have little time to cut capers. Material success is our aim, and nonsense has nothing whatever to do with that aim.” I think there was something decidedly mischievous in Holbrook Jackson’s character, which is not at all conveyed in the readily available images of him.

The photograph used
in the Wikipedia article
on Holbrook Jackson

Holbrook Jackson’s book Romance and Reality starts with the simple sentence “I like to do nothing” and further down the page continues “Of course I work — but I make no virtue of that — I work because I must. I do not make this admission to invite your sympathy. Even were I rich I might do something, just to give a relish to my real aim in life … As it is, I work to provide a margin to my days, a margin in which I may “taste the vaguely sweet content of perfect sloth in limb and brain. I know there are people who like work, and I am bound to respect their taste; but I do not in the least understand them.” Maybe after all there is something a bit dandy-like and posing in this prose; Holbrook Jackson produced more than forty books, and The Anatomy of Bibliomania alone runs to 668 pages, so he was certainly no stranger to literary work, all of which was done on top of his “day job” of journalism, of editing and later owning a weekly, and running a small press.  

In the copies of his books which he gave to his lifelong friend the librarian Ernest Callard (‘Callie’) are lovely inscriptions in his somewhat jagged handwriting, together with various photographs. There are two good photos of his house — ‘The End House’, Winterstoke Gardens, Mill Hill — pasted into the front of Southward Ho! & Other Essays, together with a more youthful and pleasant looking photo of the author.

‘The End House’, Winterstoke Gardens, Mill Hill

Another view of ‘The End House’, Mill Hill

Holbrook Jackson 

An even more youthful photo pasted by Holbrook Jackson into the front of Ernest’s copy of his Romance and Reality, shows, according to HJ’s inscription, dated 25.vi.45, Holbrook Jackson and Ernest pausing on a walk somewhere in Surrey some time in the early nineteen hundreds.

The young Holbrook Jackson and Ernest in Surrey

On the facing page is another pasted photo, and by far the most moving inscription is in Ernest’s hand, and sits below the following photo:

Holbrook Jackson on the day of his death, with Ernest ‘Callie’ Callard.

“Fifty years later. Taken at Bournemouth on the day of his death, 17th June 1948. The close of a joyous friendship.”

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Beattie's Infirmities


Sir Joshua Reynold's portait of James Beattie
I have previously quoted an exchange with his wife that Dovlatov recounted:

Я говорил:

— Пушкин волочился за женщинами… Достоевский предавался азартным играм… Есенин кутил и дрался в ресторанах… Пороки были свойственны гениальным людям в такой же мере, как и добродетели…

— Значит, ты наполовину гений, – соглашалась моя жена, – ибо пороков у тебя достаточно…

I said: “Pushkin chased after women ... Dostoevsky indulged in gambling ... Yesenin boozed and picked fights in restaurants ... Vices was just as common to men of genius as virtue …”

“Then you must be at least half a genius,” my wife would agree, “you’ve more than enough vices …”

This inadvertently largely echoes remarks made by the Scottish poet and moralist James Beattie in a letter dated 16 November 1766 to the Hon. Charles Boyd: “I flatter myself … thay I shall ere long be in the way of becoming a great man. For have I not headaches, like Pope? vertigo, like Swift? grey hairs, like Homer? Do I not wear large shoes (for fear of corns), like Virgil? and sometimes complain of sore eyes (though not of lippitude), like Horace? Am I not at this present writing invested with a garment not less ragged that that of Socrates? Like Joseph the patriarch, I am a mighty dreamer or dreams; like Nimrod the hunter, I am an  eminent builder of castles (in the air). I procrastinate, like Julius Caesar; and very lately, in imitation of Don Quixote, I rode a horse, lean, old, and lazy, like Rozinante. Sometimes, like Cicero, I write bad verses; and sometimes bad prose, like Virgil. This last instaqnce I have on the authority of Seneca. I am of small stature, like Alexander the Great; I am somewhat inclined to fatness, like Dr. Arbuthnot and Aristotle.”

Monday, June 7, 2021

Civilisation and Politics

Kenneth Clark
Kenneth Clark in 1969 in Civilisation observed: “It could be argued that western civilisation was basically the creation of the Church,” and this theme is taken up in detail in Tom Holland’s 2019 book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. Clark makes the point that when things are truly important — as science has been us in the last century — that internationalism is accepted without hesitation, and that was most definitely the case with the Church.

But there are barriers to internationalism as we are only too aware. Politics — especially recent aggrieved and parochial (or ‘patriotic’) politics that has gained popularity and momentum in so many countries — gets in the way of internationalism, and this of course poses grave problems both in terms of dealing with the current pandemic but also the long term issue of the climate. 

That politicians are happy to abandon internationalism is perhaps to be expected. That they seem unable to address important issues is reluctantly but widely accepted; but that they may not even want to deal with the big issues comes as more of a surprise. Yet Tolstoy in his novel Resurrection already described the situation with great clarity: regarding Minister of State Count Ivan Mikhailovich he wrote:

в том, что у него не было  никаких  общих принципов или правил, ни лично нравственных, ни государственных,  и  что  он поэтому со всеми мог быть согласен, когда это нужно было, и, когда это нужно было, мог быть со всеми не согласен. Поступая так, он старался только о том, чтобы был выдержан тон и не было явного противоречия самому себе, к тому же, нравственны  или  безнравственны  его  поступки  сами  по  себе,  и  о  тем, произойдет ли от них величайшее благо или  величайший  вред  для  Российской империи или для всего мира, он был совершенно равнодушен.

“having no general principles or rules of morality, either public or private, made it possible for him to agree or disagree with anybody as best suited the moment. In thus ordering his life and his work, his one endeavour was always to behave with good form and avoid being too obviously inconsistent. Whether his actions were in themselves moral or immoral, whether great good or great harm would result from them for the Russian Empire or the world as a whole, was a matter of supreme indifference to him.” (pp.328 – 329)

This is a singularly depressing observation, given as we are to seeing ourselves still very much in terms of being at the end of a long progression of societal and political development — I am reminded of those old illustrations of a series of apes standing ever more upright which now feature primarily in parody cartoons. We have, after all, progressed through various reformations and the Enlightenment. Holland sees all this as a mere extension of the fundamental pivot in thinking that the Christian church brought to the west.

“Already, by the time that Anselm died in 1109, Latin Christendom had been set upon a course so distinctive that what today we term ‘the West’ is less its heir than its continuation. Certainly, to dream of a world transformed by a reformation, or an enlightenment, or a revolution is nothing exclusively modern.”

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Chekhov's idea of well-brought up people

Anton Chekhov, in a letter to his painter brother, described what he thought of as the characteristics of well-brought-up people. In summary: well-brought up people respect others as individuals, they do not make a fuss over trifling things, and they can put up with discomforts; they can put themselves in other people’s shoes; they pay their debts and do not lie; they are not vain or superficial; they respect what talents they have, and cultivate an aesthetic sensibility.

Here is the text of the letter (followed by a translation), which expands on these points with various examples.

Воспитанные люди, по моему мнению, должны удовлетворять след<ующим> условиям:

1) Они уважают человеческую личность, а потому всегда снисходительны, мягки, вежливы, уступчивы... Они не бунтуют из-за молотка или пропавшей резинки; живя с кем-нибудь, они не делают из этого одолжения, а уходя, не говорят: с вами жить нельзя! Они прощают и шум, и холод, и пережаренное мясо, и остроты, и присутствие в их жилье посторонних...

2) Они сострадательны не к одним только нищим и кошкам. Они болеют душой и от того, чего не увидишь простым глазом. Так, например, если Петр знает, что отец и мать седеют от тоски и ночей не спят, благодаря тому что они редко видят Петра (а если видят, то пьяным), то он поспешит к ним и наплюет на водку. Они ночей не спят, чтобы помогать Полежаевым, платить за братьев-студентов, одевать мать...

3) Они уважают чужую собственность, а потому и платят долги.

4) Они чистосердечны и боятся лжи, как огня. Не лгут они даже в пустяках. Ложь оскорбительна для слушателя и опошляет в его глазах говорящего. Они не рисуются, держат себя на улице также, как дома, не пускают пыли в глаза меньшей братии... Они не болтливы и не лезут с откровенностями, когда их не спрашивают... Из уважения к чужим ушам, они чаще молчат.

5) Они не уничижают себя с тою целью, чтобы вызвать в другом сочувствие. Они не играют на струнах чужих душ, чтоб в ответ им вздыхали и нянчились с ними. Они не говорят: "Меня не понимают!" или: "Я разменялся на мелкую монету! Я б<...>!!.", потому что всё это бьет на дешевый эффект, пошло, старо, фальшиво...

6) Они не суетны. Их не занимают такие фальшивые бриллианты, как знакомства с знаменитостями, рукопожатие пьяного Плевако, восторг встречного в Salon'e, известность по портерным... Они смеются над фразой: "Я представитель печати!!", которая к лицу только Родзевичам и Левенбергам. Делая на грош, они не носятся со своей папкой на сто рублей и не хвастают тем, что их пустили туда, куда других не пустили... Истинные таланты всегда сидят в потёмках, в толпе, подальше от выставки... Даже Крылов сказал, что пустую бочку слышнее, чем полную...

7) Если они имеют в себе талант, то уважают его. Они жертвуют для него покоем, женщинами, вином, суетой... Они горды своим талантом. Так, они не пьянствуют с надзирателями мещанского училища и с гостями Скворцова, сознавая, что они призваны не жить с ними, а воспитывающе влиять на них. К тому же они брезгливы...

8) Они воспитывают в себе эстетику. Они не могут уснуть в одежде, видеть на стене щели с клопами, дышать дрянным воздухом, шагать по оплеванному полу, питаться из керосинки ... 

— А. П. Чехов, письмо Н. П. Чехову, Март 1886 г. Москва.

Well-brought-up people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions:

1. They respect the human individual, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a scene over a hammer or a lost rubber-band; if they live with anyone they do not regard it as doing a favour and, when they leave, they do not say “nobody can live with you.” They forgive noise and cold and overcooked meat and strong smells and the presence of strangers in their homes.

2. They have sympathy not only for beggars and cats. They are sick in their souls and from what cannot be seen with the naked eye. So, for example, if Peter knows that father and mother turn gray from longing and do not sleep at night, due to the fact that they rarely see Peter (and when they do, he’s drunk), then he will rush to them and banish vodka. They do not sleep nights to help the Polezhaevs, pay for student brothers, buy clothes for their mother.

3. They respect the property of others, and therefore pay their debts.

4. They are sincere, and dread lying as one fears fire. They do not lie even in trifling things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not put on airs, and behave in public exactly as they do at home, they do kick sand in their brothers’ faces. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk.

5. They do not disparage themselves to arouse sympathy. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. They do not say “I am misunderstood,” or “I have become second-rate,” because all this is striving after cheap effect, is vulgar, stale, false....

6. They are not vain. They do not care for fake diamonds such as knowing celebrities, shaking hands with a well-known drunken poet to hear the delight of a stray spectator in a salon, or for being renowned in the taverns.... They laugh at the phrase: “I am a representative of the press !!” which suits only the Rodzevichs and Levenbergs. If they do a penny’s work they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having access where others are not admitted.... The truly talented always stay in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from being on show …. Even Krylov has said that an empty barrel echoes more loudly than a full one.

7. If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity.... They are proud of their talent so they do not get drunk with the supervisors of the bourgeois school and with Skvortsov’s guests, realizing that they are called not to live with them, but to influence them in their upbringing. Besides, they are fastidious.

8. They cultivate aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a spattered floor, cook their meals over a kerosene stove ... 

Monday, May 3, 2021

Playing towards impossible goals

А игры не будет, что ж тогда остается? If there won’t be games, then what remains?

That’s Tolstoy, and the fuller context is at the end of this post. 

I have elsewhere quoted the words of Henry Moore, as reported by the poet Donald Hall, “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is – it must be something you cannot possibly do.” I wonder if Moore knew he was essentially repeating something from Nietzsche, who in 1873 wrote in his notebook: “nun so stecke Dir selber Ziele, hohe und edle Ziele und gehe an ihnen zu Grunde! Ich weiss keinen besseren Lebenszweck als am Grossen und Unmöglichen zu Grunde zu gehen: animae magnae prodigus” — “Set for yourself high and noble goals, and perish in pursuit of them! I know of no better life purpose than to perish in pursuing the great and the impossible: animae magnae prodigus.”

This thought seems closely related to this later idea, which appears in Jenseits von Gut und Böse (1886): “Reife des Mannes: das heisst den Ernst wiedergefunden haben, den man als Kind hatte, beim Spiel” (#94). “A man’s maturity: this means having regained the seriousness one had as a child when playing.” The book title is translated as Beyond Good and Evil; this is correct enough but the original does have something of the sense of ‘The Next World: post Goodies and Baddies’ …. Of course a silly, awkward, and ugly translation.

The centrality of how children play was realized well before Nietzsche. Most famously Friedrich Fröbel in his Sonntagsblatt (1838 - 1840) described his idea of Spielgabe, “play gifts” such as wooden blocks, which we now refer to as Fröbelgaben, and which were the foundation of the original idea of kindergarten. In his autobiography Frank Lloyd Wright recalls the seminal importance of playing with construction blocks based on Fröbel’s ideas: “Now came the geometric play of these charming checkered colour combinations! The structural figures to be made with peas and small straight sticks; slender constructions, the jointings accented by the little green pea globes. The smooth shapely maple blocks with which to build, the sense of which never afterwards leaves the fingers: so form became feeling. And the box with a mast to set upon it, on which to hang with string the maple cubes and spheres and triangles, revolving them to discover subordinate forms.” 

Jung, in his Memories, Dreams, Reflections recalls: “Als erstes tauchte eine Erinnerung aus der Kindheit auf, vielleicht aus dem zehnten oder elften Jahr. Damals hatte ich leidenschaftlich mit Bausteinen gespielt. Ich erinnerte mich deutlich, wie ich Häuschen und Schlösser gebaut und Tore mit Bögen über Flaschen gewölbt hatte. Etwas später verwendete ich natürliche Steine und Lehm als Mörtel. Diese Bauten hatten mich während langer Zeit fasziniert. Zu meinem Erstaunen tauchte diese Erinnerung auf, begleitet von einer gewissen Emotion. «Aha», sagte ich mir, «hier ist Leben! Der kleine Junge ist noch da und besitzt ein schöpferisches Leben, das mir fehlt. Aber wie kann ich dazu gelangen?» Es schien mir unmöglich, die Distanz zwischen der Gegenwart, dem erwachsenen Mann, und meinem elften Jahr zu überbrücken. Wollte ich aber den Kontakt mit jener Zeit wieder herstellen, so blieb mir nichts anderes übrig, als wieder dorthin zurückzukehren und das Kind mit seinen kindlichen Spielen auf gut Glück wieder aufzunehmen. Dieser Augenblick war ein Wendepunkt in meinem Schicksal, denn nach unendlichem Widerstreben ergab ich mich schließlich darein zu spielen. Es ging nicht ohne äußerste Resignation und nicht ohne das schmerzhafte Erlebnis der Demütigung, nichts anderes wirklich tun zu können als zu spielen.”

 “The first thing that came to the surface was a childhood memory from perhaps my tenth or eleventh year. At that time I had had a spell of playing passionately with building blocks. I distinctly recalled how I had built little houses and castles, using bottles to form the sides of gates and vaults. Somewhat later I had used ordinary stones, with mud for mortar. These structures had fascinated me for a long time. To my astonishment, this memory was accompanied by a good deal of emotion. “Aha,” I said to myself, “there is still life in these things. The small boy is still around, and possesses a creative life which I lack. But how can I make my way to it?” For as a grown man it seemed impossible to me that I should be able to bridge the distance from the present back to my eleventh year. Yet if I wanted to re-establish contact with that period, I had no choice but to return to it and take up once more that child’s life with the childish games. This moment was a turning point in my fate, but I gave in only after endless resistances and with a sense of recognition. For it was a painfully humiliating experience to realise that there was nothing to be done except play childish games.”

In 1950, for his 75th birthday he installed a stone cube at his Bollingen Tower home on the shores of Lake Zurich, one of the inscriptions on which reads: “Ὁ Αἰὼν παῖς ἐστι παίζων, πεττεύων· παιδὸς ἡ βασιληίη.” — Which has been translated as “Time is a child — playing like a child — playing a board game — the kingdom of the child.” 

And Alain de Botton in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work observes: “Long before we ever earned any money, we were aware of the necessity of keeping busy: we knew the satisfactions of stacking bricks, pouring water into and out of containers and moving sand from one pit to another, untroubled by the greater purpose of our actions.”

Tolstoy in Детство (Childhood) reflects on the importance of games. “Я  сам знаю,  что из палки не только что убить птицу,  да и выстрелить никак нельзя.  Это игра.  Коли так рассуждать, то и на стульях ездить нельзя; а Володя, я думаю, сам помнит, как в долгие зимние вечера мы  накрывали кресло платками,  делали из него коляску,  один садился кучером,  другой лакеем, девочки в середину, три стула были тройка лошадей, - и мы отправлялись в дорогу.  И какие разные приключения случались в этой дороге! и как  весело и  скоро  проходили зимние вечера!..  Ежели судить по-настоящему,  то игры никакой не будет. А игры не будет, что ж тогда остается?” — Judson Rosengrant’s Penguin Classics translation runs like this: “I myself knew that the stick not only wouldn’t kill birds, but wouldn’t even shoot. It was a game. If you were going to look at it like that, then you couldn’t ride chairs either, and I think Volodya himself remembered how on the long winter evenings we covered an armchair with shawls and made a barouche out of it, with one of us the driver and the other a footman, and the girls in the middle, and three chairs a troika of horses as we set off down the road. And what adventures we had along the way! How happily and quickly we passed those winter evenings! If you’re going to judge by what’s real, there can be no play at all. And if there’s no play, what’s left?”

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Bolsheviks and Bashleviks

More Dovlatov wit, but a little tricky to translate, my preference is to preserve the phonetics of the play on words:

“Все люди делятся на большевиков и башлевиков…”

(appears on page 21 of The Compromise, Chatto & Windus translation by Anne Frydman)

“All people can be divided into bolsheviks and bashleviks” … a bashlevik being a loaded guy who can dish out the money. Being loaded in Russia or the Soviet Union of course comes with certain connotations.

The context is 

— У меня было восемь рублей, я их по-джентльменски отстегнул. Сам хочу у кого-нибудь двинуть.  Дождитесь Митьку, и пусть он башляет это дело. Слушайте, я хохму придумал: “Все люди делятся на большевиков и башлевиков…”

For which Frydman’s translation runs:

“I had eight rubles. I handed them over like a gentleman. I’d like to put the touch on someone myself. Wait for Mitya, and let him foot the bill for this affair. Listen! I just thought of a good one. You can divide all people into two categories: Bolsheviks or bill-footers.” 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Geht denn die Natur etwa ins Ausland?

Carl Seelig is his wonderful small book Wanderungen mit Robert Walser (Walks With Walser) recalls a conversation where in one of his many walks with Walser, Seelig quoted in summary form some lines from Walser’s book Geschwister Tanner — usually translated as The Tanners although more literally it would be The Tanner Siblings. Here is Seelig: 
“I have often come across this attitude in your books, by the way, for example where you say: ‘Does nature go abroad? I’m always looking at the trees and telling myself: They aren’t leaving either, so why shouldn’t I be permitted to remain?’” Robert: “Yes, only the journey to oneself is important.”
This is a powerful thought and reminiscent of the first Psalm: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.”

The remembered text in Geschwister Tanner reads: “Geht denn die Natur etwa ins Ausland? Wandern Bäume, um sich anderswo grünere Blätter anzuschaffen und dann heimzukommen und sich prahlend zu zeigen? Die Flüsse und die Wolken gehen, aber das ist ein anderes, tieferes Davongehen, das kommt nie mehr wieder. Es ist auch kein Gehen sondern nur ein fliegendes und fließendes Ruhen. Ein solches Gehen, das ist schön, meine ich! Ich blicke immer die Bäume an, und sage mir, die gehen ja auch nicht, warum sollte ich nicht bleiben dürfen?”

“Does nature go abroad?  Do trees wander off to get greener leaves elsewhere and then return home and braggingly show themselves off?  The rivers and the clouds are always leaving, but that is a different, deeper leave-taking, with no returning ever.  It is also really no departure, but rather a flying, flowing way of being at rest.  Such a departure — that is beautiful, if I may say so!  I’m always looking at trees and saying to myself, they don’t leave either, why shouldn’t I be allowed to stay?”