Emerson and Melville on Melancholy

Two great quotes I picked up on earlier this summer when I read Eric Wilson’s Against Happiness:

 

I compared notes with one of my friends who expects everything of the universe, and is disappointed when anything is less than best, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods.

–Emerson, “Friendship”

So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. ‘All is vanity.’ ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, and therefore jolly;—not that man is fitted to sit down on tombstones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.              

But even Solomon, he says, ‘the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain’ (i.e. even while living) ‘in the congregation of the dead.’ Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

–Melville, Moby Dick, ch. XCVI

 

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More of Mill on Living Well

From chapter 5 of the autobiography…

On happiness through ignoring yourself:

The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning. This theory now became the basis of my philosophy of life. And I still hold to it as the best theory for all those who have but a moderate degree of sensibility and of capacity for enjoyment, that is, for the great majority of mankind.

 

On music:

The only one of the imaginative arts in which I had from childhood taken great pleasure, was music; the best effect of which (and in this it surpasses perhaps every other art) consists in exciting enthusiasm; in winding up to a high pitch those feelings of an elevated kind which are already in the character, but to which this excitement gives a glow and a fervour, which, though transitory at its utmost height, is precious for sustaining them at other times. This effect of music I had often experienced; but like all my pleasurable susceptibilities it was suspended during the gloomy period. I had sought relief again and again from this quarter, but found none. After the tide had turned, and I was in process of recovery, I had been helped forward by music, but in a much less elevated manner. I at this time first became acquainted with Weber’s Oberon, and the extreme pleasure which I drew from its delicious melodies did me good, by showing me a source of pleasure to which I was as susceptible as ever.

 

On finding enjoyment in simple things:

Relieved from my ever present sense of irremediable wretchedness, I gradually found that the ordinary incidents of life could again give me some pleasure; that I could again find enjoyment, not intense, but sufficient for cheerfulness, in sunshine and sky, in books, in conversation, in public affairs; and that there was, once more, excitement, though of a moderate kind, in exerting myself for my opinions, and for the public good.

 

On poetry (and mountains):

This state of my thoughts and feelings made the fact of my reading Wordsworth for the first time (in the autumn of 1828), an important event in my life….   
  In the first place, these poems addressed themselves powerfully to one of the strongest of my pleasurable susceptibilities, the love of rural objects and natural scenery; to which I had been indebted not only for much of the pleasure of my life, but quite recently for relief from one of my longest relapses into depression. In this power of rural beauty over me, there was a foundation laid for taking pleasure in Wordsworth’s, poetry. the more so, as his scenery lies mostly among mountains, which, owing to my early Pyrenean excursion, were my ideal of natural beauty. But Wordsworth would never have had any great effect on me, if he had merely placed before me beautiful pictures of natural scenery. Scott does this still better than Wordsworth, and a very second-rate landscape does it more effectually than any poet. What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a Source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connexion with struggle of imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence. There have certainly been, even in our own age, greater poets than Wordsworth; but poetry of deeper and loftier feeling could not have done for me at that time what his did. I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in the common feelings and common destiny of human beings. And the delight which these poems gave me, proved that with culture of this sort, there was nothing to dread from the most confirmed habit of analysis.

John Stuart Mill on Good Writing

My love affair with Mill’s autobiography continues. This paragraph from chapter 4 reviews the effect that an editing job he held had on his own writing.

The middle struck me as a bit funny: he notes that some readers found someone else’s style too convoluted; this, in a sentence with eight commas and a colon. I actually love Mill’s constant subordination–it makes his prose exact, but he never overdoes it. Each sentence of his always has a perfect balance between precision and fluidity.

Also, I like the description of good writing elements at the end: the idea of fleshing out the bare bones of composition and creating something “lively and light.”

The time occupied in this editorial work was extremely well employed in respect to my own improvement. The “Rationale of judicial Evidence” is one of the richest in matter of all Bentham’s productions. The theory of evidence being in itself one of the most important of his subjects, and ramifying into most of the others, the book contains, very fully developed, a great proportion of all his best thoughts: while, among more special things, it comprises the most elaborate exposure of the vices and defects of English law, as it then was, which is to be found in his works; not confined to the law of evidence, but including, by way of illustrative episode, the entire procedure or practice of Westminster Hall. The direct knowledge, therefore, which I obtained from the book, and which was imprinted upon me much more thoroughly than it could have been by mere reading, was itself no small acquisition. But this occupation did for me what might seem less to be expected; it gave a great start to my powers of composition. Everything which I wrote subsequently to this editorial employment, was markedly superior to anything that I had written before it. Bentham’s later style, as the world knows, was heavy and cumbersome, from the excess of a good quality, the love of precision, which made him introduce clause within clause into the heart of every sentence, that the reader might receive into his mind all the modifications and qualifications simultaneously with the main proposition: and the habit grew on him until his sentences became, to those not accustomed to them, most laborious reading. But his earlier style, that of the Fragment on Government, Plan of a judicial Establishment, &c., is a model of liveliness and ease combined with fulness of matter, scarcely ever surpassed: and of this earlier style there were many striking specimens in the manuscripts on Evidence, all of which I endeavoured to preserve. So long a course of this admirable writing had a considerable effect upon my own; and I added to it by the assiduous reading of other writers, both French and English, who combined, in a remarkable degree, ease with force, such as Goldsmith, Fielding, Pascal, Voltaire, and Courier. Through these influences my writing lost the jejuneness of my early compositions; the bones and cartilages began to clothe themselves with flesh, and the style became, at times, lively and almost light.

57 Perfect Tens

I just read these two great posts about rereading favorite books.  I very rarely do that–I’m one of those who have so many new things I want to read that it’s hard to justify making time to go back to books I’ve already finished.

Still, this made me review the notes I’ve kept on my reading–a list of every book I’ve read since 2001.  From that record, I see that I’ve given exactly 57 books a perfect 10, not suggesting that they’re all masterpieces, but that reading them was pure, supreme joy for me.  If I were stranded on a desert island, this would be my library.

  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey
  2. As You Like It, William Shakespeare
  3. A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe
  4. The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham
  5. Doctrinal New Testament Commentary vol.1-3, Bruce R. McConkie
  6. Raising Up A Family to the Lord, Gene R. Cook
  7. Charles Kuralt’s America, Charles Kuralt
  8. The Know-It-All, A.J. Jacobs
  9. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
  10. Beowulf, Seamus Heaney, trans.
  11. The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason
  12. Heroes of History, Will Durant
  13. The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde
  14. The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
  15. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
  16. How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton
  17. The Stranger, Albert Camus
  18. Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman
  19. America Alone, Mark Steyn
  20. The Tetherballs of Bougainville, Mark Leyner
  21. On Liberty, John Stuart Mill
  22. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
  23. Code of the Woosters, P.G. Wodehouse
  24. A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  25. Reading the OED, Ammon Shea
  26. An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
  27. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  28. The Westing Game, Ellen Rankin
  29. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  30. Rise To Rebellion, Jeff Shaara
  31. Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces, Wendy Beckett
  32. The Last American Man, Elizabeth Gilbert
  33. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo
  34. The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay
  35. Dune, Frank Herbert
  36. No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
  37. World War Z, Max Brooks
  38. Richard II, William Shakespeare
  39. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
  40. Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus
  41. Henry IV, Part I, William Shakespeare
  42. A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin
  43. Carry On, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse
  44. The Secret Knowledge, David Mamet
  45. Noble House, James Clavell
  46. Flatland, Edwin Abbott
  47. Born to Run, Christopher McDougall
  48. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
  49. Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
  50. Paradise Lost, John Milton
  51. Elric of Melniboné, Michael Moorcock
  52. One For the Books, Joe Queenan
  53. Dubliners, James Joyce
  54. Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
  55. Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz
  56. Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
  57. His Excellency: George Washington, Joseph J. Ellis

 

John Stuart Mill on Living Well

I’m getting a lot out of Mill’s autobiography. From the end of chapter 3, wise advice:

I learnt how to obtain the best I could, when I could not obtain everything; instead of being indignant or dispirited because I could not have entirely my own way, to be pleased and encouraged when I could have the smallest part of it; and when even that could not be, to bear with complete equanimity the being overruled altogether. I have found, through life, these acquisitions to be of the greatest possible importance for personal happiness, and they are also a very necessary condition for enabling any one, either as theorist or as practical man, to effect the greatest amount of good compatible with his opportunities.

And near the end of chapter 4 Mill details the casual self-improvement programs he and some friends conducted, mostly as a sort of intense book club. They studied languages, read and discussed serious works, and debated issues. Where are such groups today?

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“The Whole Concatenation of Diabolical Rascality”

Probably the single coolest phrase in all of scripture, right there.  In Doctrine and Covenants 123, Joseph Smith encouraged the Latter-day Saints to keep track of all the “libelous publications,” as well as property damage and physical abuse, they had suffered.

Verse 5 uses this unique and memorable phrase to summarize that record: “the whole concatenation of diabolical rascality.”  Isn’t it wonderful?

First of all, it’s funny in the way that wordy phrases are, using multiple long, obscure words right next to each other.  Also, it’s a perfect example of that 19th century style of excruciatingly exact wording.  The individual words themselves are quite funny, too.  “Concatenation.”  Just say that one aloud.

Everybody should definitely highlight this phrase in their own copies right away.

And if you haven’t read the Doctrine and Covenants, you really should.  Who wouldn’t want to read a book that has gems like this in it?

 

 

Great Writing About Great Writing

“Something has happened to me, something that I must record. I strain to recapture my feeling of purple. It quickly comes, and there I am in my imagination weaving in and out of desolate trunks with my eyes wide open. In a flash of energy, I write several sentences on this experience. But then rises in my mind that amassment of sludge and the doll fragment. I think to myself that I shouldn’t be excited over this season of sordid appendages and squalor. I stop writing. I look over what I have written. It is turgid, hyperbolic. With slight disdain, I begin to mark out extraneous words and phrases. I feel the brisk satisfaction of making lean what had before been bloated, of rubbing off a layer of dirt. In the end I am left with a three tight sentences and the slow-burning rapture of successful creation, the play of energy and form, the beating heart and the mind that’s chilled.”

–Eric G. Wilson, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, 46-47

Notes and Quotes, June 2014

Education

  • List of technology-enhanced activities for secondary English classes.
  • Examples of worthwhile technology-enhanced lesson plans.
  • Quick thoughts from the Hardings, homeschooling parents of ten who have sent seven kids to college by age 12.
  • Recently found this silly video I made for a class I was taking two years ago.  Amusing.
  • Instapundit nails it: the humanities lost relevance when they decided to preach that nothing has intrinsic value.  It’s been my experience that students (yes, even at-risk, underprivileged minorities!) appreciate the classics.  Everybody likes the egalitarian ideal of participation in the uniting, universal canon, rather than manufactured niche curricula that only panders to trends.

 

Language & Literature

  • Great WSJ essay on one of my favorite books, A Confederacy of Dunces.
  • Cute chart collects insults from famous authors who hated each other’s work.
  • Fascinating memoir of writing the script for Star Trek: Insurrection. Included here because it shares so much about that specific writing craft.  Also, Insurrection is often over-maligned—it is not great, but not nearly as bad as many say.  This long essay shows how it could have been great.
  • Long lost introduction by Anthony Burgess to Dubliners.

 

 

Living Well

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Science: Literature Changes Your Brain

Recently, some pioneering work in neuroscience has begun to suggest what English teachers have long known: that the power of literature is the power of alterity, creating the possibility of encountering the other in a form not easily recuperable, not easily assimilable to the self. “Imaginative sympathy,” we used to call it. To read literature well is to be challenged, and to emerge changed.

–“Dead Poets Society Is a Terrible Defense of the Humanities

 

“Global Uniformity”

Prophetic words from 1995:

“I think cyberspace means the end of our species….Because it means the end of innovation….This idea that the whole world is wired together is mass death.

“Every biologist knows that small groups in isolation evolve fastest. You put a thousand birds on an ocean island and they’ll evolve very fast. You put ten thousand on a big continent, and their evolution slows down. Now, for our own species, evolution occurs mostly through our behavior. We innovate new behavior to adapt. And everybody on earth knows that innovation only occurs in small groups.

“Put three people on a committee and they may get something done. Ten people, and it gets harder. Thirty people, and nothing happens. Thirty million, it becomes impossible. That’s the effect of mass media—it keeps anything from happening. Mass media swamps diversity. It makes every place the same.

“Bangkok or Tokyo or London: there’s a McDonald’s on one corner, a Benetton on another, a Gap across the street. Regional differences vanish. All differences vanish. In a mass-media world, there’s less of everything except the top ten books, records, movies, ideas. People worry about losing species diversity in the rain forest. But what about intellectual diversity—our most necessary resource? That’s disappearing faster than trees.

“But we haven’t figured that out, so now we’re planning to put five billion people together in cyberspace. And it’ll freeze the entire species. Everything will stop dead in its tracks. Everyone will think the same thing at the same time. Global uniformity.”

–Michael Crichton, The Lost World

Language and Literature Notes and Quotes, April 2014

An experimental film version of Finnegans Wake.

“At Oxford, I was taught that every particle of a poem can amplify its meaning, and when poets get it right individual words can add volumes of sense. Trying to fill in some of their blanks is a useful lesson in this fine art.”

Diagraming famous first sentences from classic literature.

New way to learn Chinese characters.

“Want to Become a Better Writer? Copy the Work of Others!”

“56 Delightful Victorian Slang Terms You Should Be Using”

Poetry quiz.

Chart shows who dies and how in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

Shakespeare’s Histories Are Pretty Gangsta

Betrayal.  Revenge.  Conspiracy.  Murdering your way up the ladder of power.  People usually associate these plot elements with Shakespeare’s tragedies, but I see them operate most strongly in his histories.  That’s one reason why those tend to be my favorite of his works.

Besides just being The Sopranos on an Elizabethan stage, the language here is where Shakespeare gets the most deliciously vicious.

Consider some of the lesser history plays.  Even there, the dialogue tends to be enough to make one’s blood boil.

Henry VI, Part II takes us into the War of the Roses, which was also the historical basis for Game of Thrones, so you know this’ll be full of politically venomous mayhem:

And even now my burthen’d heart would break,
Should I not curse them. Poison be their drink!
Gall, worse than gall, the daintiest that they taste!
Their sweetest shade a grove of cypress trees!
Their chiefest prospect murdering basilisks!
Their softest touch as smart as lizards’ sting!
Their music frightful as the serpent’s hiss,
And boding screech-owls make the concert full!
All the foul terrors in dark-seated hell—  (III.2.320-328)

And this one has my favorite lines of all in Shakespeare’s early plays:

Upon thy eye-balls murderous tyranny
Sits in grim majesty, to fright the world.  (III.2.49-50)

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Mormon Pioneers = Trojan Heroes?

“Call up your courage again. Dismiss your grief and fear.
A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.
Through so many hard straits, so many twists and turns
our course holds firm for Latium. There Fate holds out
a homeland, calm, at peace. There the gods decree
the kingdom of Troy will rise again. Bear up.
Save your strength for better times to come.”

This is a quote from Brigham Young.

Here, the Mormon leader motivates discouraged pioneers as they survey the barren, hostile wilderness they’re passing through, after being driven out of their ruined home.  He reminds them that they’ve already suffered greatly before and endured.  He inspires them with a vision of their destined goal: the establishment of a new headquarters for their people in a land to the west.  Their civilization is to be a re-establishment of a great order that had been lost.  This powerful, cheering attitude helps the people strive and successfully realize the prophecy.

Oh, no, wait.  That’s not right.  This is actually a quote from the Trojan hero Aeneas in Virgil’s epic The Aeneid (Book I, lines 238-244, Robert Fagles trans.).

Here, the Trojan leader motivates discouraged soldiers as they survey the barren, hostile wilderness they’re passing through, after being driven out of their ruined home.  He reminds them that they’ve already suffered greatly before and endured.  He inspires them with a vision of their destined goal: the establishment of a new headquarters for their people in a land to the west.  Their civilization is to be a re-establishment of a great order that had been lost.  This powerful, cheering attitude helps the people strive and successfully realize the prophecy.

Sorry, folks.  Don’t know how I could have mistaken those two episodes.