Freedom and inevitability in the Second Epilogue

"A sinking man who clutches at another and drowns him; or a hungry mother exhausted by feeding her baby, who steals some food; or a man trained to discipline who on duty at the word of command kills a defenseless man--seem less guilty, that is, less free and more subject to the law of necessity, to one who knows the circumstances in which these people were placed, and more free to one who does not know that the man was himself drowning, that the mother was hungry, that the soldier was in the ranks, and so on. Similarly a man who committed a murder twenty years ago and has since lived peaceably and harmlessly in society seems less guilty and his action more due to the law of inevitability, to someone who considers his action after twenty years have elapsed than to one who examined it the day after it was committed. And in the same way every action of an insane, intoxicated, or highly excited man appears less free and more inevitable to one who knows the mental condition of him who committed the action, and seems more free and less inevitable to one who does not know it. In all these cases the conception of freedom is increased or diminished and the conception of compulsion is correspondingly decreased or increased, according to the point of view from which the action is regarded. So that the greater the conception of necessity the smaller the conception of freedom and vice versa." From the Second Epilogue of War and Peace

Tradition and the Individual Talent

First published in The Sacred Wood in 1921:

Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.

— T.S. Eliot

A jawn like no other

Dan Nosowitz in Atlas Obscura:

The word “jawn” is unlike any other English word. In fact, according to the experts that I spoke to, it’s unlike any other word in any other language. It is an all-purpose noun, a stand-in for inanimate objects, abstract concepts, events, places, individual people, and groups of people. It is a completely acceptable statement in Philadelphia to ask someone to “remember to bring that jawn to the jawn.”

"I soon saw that it was simply not in me to be a mandarin."

Saul Bellow interviewed in the Paris Review -- "My first two books are well made. I wrote the first quickly but took great pains with it. I labored with the second and tried to make it letter-perfect. In writing The Victim I accepted a Flaubertian standard. Not a bad standard, to be sure, but one which, in the end, I found repressive—repressive because of the circumstances of my life and because of my upbringing in Chicago as the son of immigrants. I could not, with such an instrument as I developed in the first two books, express a variety of things I knew intimately. Those books, though useful, did not give me a form in which I felt comfortable. A writer should be able to express himself easily, naturally, copiously in a form that frees his mind, his energies. Why should he hobble himself with formalities? With a borrowed sensibility? With the desire to be “correct”? Why should I force myself to write like an Englishman or a contributor to The New Yorker? I soon saw that it was simply not in me to be a mandarin. I should add that for a young man in my position there were social inhibitions, too. I had good reason to fear that I would be put down as a foreigner, an interloper. It was made clear to me when I studied literature in the university that as a Jew and the son of Russian Jews I would probably never have the right feeling for Anglo-Saxon traditions, for English words. I realized even in college that the people who told me this were not necessarily disinterested friends. But they had an effect on me, nevertheless. This was something from which I had to free myself. I fought free because I had to."

"Poor Polidori"

If you have any interest in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or vampires or Romantic poets or, who knows, Swiss tourism, you've most likely read Polidori’s name. He’s a curio, Polly Dolly, most notable not for what he wrote but for being nearby when other people wrote things. It’s a strange afterlife; to think you've landed a leading role, and then there you are, on stage, sure, and with big names too, but fixed to a mark far upstage and over to the left, near the wings, in the half-dark where the spotlight doesn't quite reach. “Poor Polidori.” That’s how Mary Shelley referred to him, writing years later. And he was. Here is how he creeps into letters, like this one written by Byron: “Dr. Polidori is not here, but at Diodati, left behind in hospital with a sprained ankle, which he acquired in tumbling from a wall—he can’t jump.” It was John Polidori’s misfortune to be comic without having a sense of humor, to wish to be a great writer but to be a terrible one, to be unusually bright but surrounded for one summer by people who were titanically brighter, and to have just enough of an awareness of all of this to make him perpetually uneasy. Also, he couldn't jump. Poor Polidori.

A marriage of minds

John Stuart Mill on his wife Harriet Taylor, as quoted in the New York Review of Books — "In general spiritual characteristics, as well as in temperament and organization, I have often compared her, as she was at this time, to Shelley: but in thought and intellect, Shelley, so far as his powers were developed in his short life, was but a child compared with what she ultimately became. Alike in the highest regions of speculation and in the smaller practical concerns of daily life, her mind was the same perfect instrument, piercing to the very heart and marrow of the matter; always seizing the essential idea or principle.

"The same exactness and rapidity of operation, pervading as it did her sensitive as [well as] her mental faculties, would with her gifts of feeling and imagination have fitted her to be a consummate artist, as her fiery and tender soul and her vigourous eloquence would certainly have made her a great orator, and her profound knowledge of human nature and discernment and sagacity in practical life, would in [the] times when such a carrière was open to women, have made her eminent among the rulers of mankind.


"Were I [but] capable of interpreting to the world one half the great thoughts and noble feelings which are buried in her grave, I should be the medium of a greater benefit to it, than is ever likely to arise from anything that I can write, unprompted and unassisted by her all but unrivalled wisdom."

Nietzsche on the "tyranny of the actual"

"What antiquated thoughts I harbour in my breast toward such a complex of mythology and virtue! But they must out for once, and may everyone have a good laugh. I would say the following: history always inculcates: "once upon a time," the moral: "you ought not" or "you ought not to have." So history becomes a compendium of actual immorality. How grievously he would err who would at the same time view history as the judge of this actual immorality! That a Raphael had to die at the age of thirty-six, for example, is offensive to morality: such a being ought never to die. If now you want to come to the aid of history, as apologists of the actual, you will say: he expressed all he had to say and given a longer life he would always only have produced beauty as the same beauty, not as new beauty, as things of this sort. Thus you are advocates of the devil, namely by making of success, of fact, your idol: while a fact is always stupid and has at all times resembled a calf more than a god." (From Nietzsche's On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, section 8. Translation by Peter Preuss.)

"One may be allowed a certain glee over Thersites’ fate."

From Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of History -- "By fulfilling their own great purpose in accordance with the necessity of the universal Spirit, these world-historical men also satisfy themselves. These two things belong inseparably together: the cause and its hero. They must both be satisfied ... It is psychological pedantry to make a separation and, by giving passion the name of addiction, to suspect the morality of these men. By saying they acted only from morbid craving, one presents the consequences of their actions as their purposes and degrades the actions themselves to means. Alexander of Macedon partly conquered Greece and then Asia; it is said, therefore, that he craved conquest, and as proof it is offered that he did things which resulted in fame. What schoolmaster has not demonstrated that Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were driven by such passions and were, consequently, immoral? From which it immediately follows that he, the schoolmaster, is a better man than they because he has no such passions, and proves it by the fact that he has not conquered Asia nor vanquished Darius and Porus, but enjoys life and allows others to enjoy it too.

"These psychologists are particularly fond of contemplating those peculiarities that belong to great historical figures as private persons. Man must eat and drink; he has relations with friends and acquaintances; he has emotions and fits of temper. “No man is a hero to his valet de chambre,” is a well-known proverb; I have added – and Goethe repeated it two years later – "but not because the former is no hero, but because the latter is a valet.” He takes off the hero’s boots, helps him into bed, knows that he prefers champagne, and the like. Historical personages fare badly in historical literature when served by such psychological valets. These attendants degrade them to their own level, or rather a few degrees below the level of their own morality, these exquisite discerners of spirits. Homer’s Thersites, who abuses the kings, is a standing figure for all times.

"Not in every age, it is true, does he get blows – that is, beating with a solid cudgel – as in the Homeric one. But his envy, his egotism, is the thorn that he has to carry in his flesh; and the undying worm that gnaws him is the tormenting thought that his excellent intentions and criticisms get absolutely no result in the world. One may be allowed a certain glee over Thersites’ fate."

Violence and vulgarity in the early works of Austen

Paula Byrne in the Times Literary Supplement -- Re-reading the youthful writings, one is struck again and again by the violence. A group of characters threaten murder by dagger, which shall be “steeped in your hearts blood”. A sister poisons another sister and is “speedily raised to the gallows” for her perfidy. A child bites off her mother’s fingers. There is also notable violence against the self. One young heroine inadvertently enters into an engagement with two gentlemen in the space of a single evening and kills herself by plunging into the river. Another is addicted “to the bottle”, and drinks herself half to death. In “Love and Freindship”, the two heroines, indulging in a bout of sensibility, are momentarily distracted by a road accident. They see “Two Gentlemen most elegantly attired but weltering in their blood”. When the heroines discover that the gentlemen are in fact their husbands, they respond like characters in a sentimental novel: “Sophia shrieked and fainted on the Ground – I ran instantly mad”. Sophia faints for so long that she catches cold, develops a fever and dies. Her final advice is not to faint but to run mad: “Beware of swoons, dear Laura . . . . A frenzy fit is not one quarter so pernicious; it is an exercise to the Body and if not too violent, is I dare say conducive to Health in its consequence”.

Paul Valéry, Pièces sur L’Art, 1931

“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”