Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Monday, June 29, 2009

On Sainte-Beuve On Montaigne

Sainte-Beuve writes messily, but the fine feelings sweep you along quickly so you don't notice until the second read.

I have forced Sainte-Beuve to speak here of Montaigne in epigram, as I can only imagine he would have wished if he had a modern audience to communicate with.

Much as his work has been demolished for me by Proust's criticism, Sainte-Beuve's wonderful love and enthusiasm remains:

- "It may be said of Montaigne's style that it is a continual epigram, or an ever-renewed metaphor."

- "Montaigne is a writer naturally fertile in metaphors that are never detached from the thought, but that seize it in its very center."

- "If we desired to write with his severity, exact proportion, and diverse continuity of figures and turns - it is absolutely necessary to enlarge and extend the French language."

- "In imagining the expression and locution that is wanting, our prose should appear equally finished, inspired and emboldened, but not intoxicated, by the pure and direct spirit of ancient sources."

Some stray birds:

Can even a Frenchman still speak about enlarging the language? And now that English cannot be engrossed by any one human mind, can it even be called a single language, or is it rather a super-language or complex of languages?

I find in Montaigne's classicism the best possible kind: to treat the Roman and Greek authors as a matter for pleasure and wisdom alone, and to avoid all pretense of learning and unnatural composure.

The very same things said of Montaigne are also said of Dante by the critics. Can it be the sweet new style is anything other than a sweet fresh mind made intimate with the minds of the ancients?

Finally, how can we account for Dante in Italian, Montaigne in French, and Shakespeare in English? The mystery at least can be traced to the Roman writers. But that does not explain the light that entered the world through their work.

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On Reading Andre Gides Journals.

When I was sixteen years old, I got Gide's Journals through an interlibrary loan, my first such loan. I felt the librarians had done me an enormous favor. Perhaps they had; they charged nothing for the service.

They were two blue bound editions, quarto sized, printed and bound with glorious good taste. The peccantine librarians had vulgarly clad them in white laminated plastic emblazoned with the words "INTERLIBRARY LOAN"; I ripped them off as soon as I got home.

I remember the cool old blue cloth cover in my hands, and how my heart beat when I opened volume one. I read them through in a month and returned them with regret and gratitude. I would have been hard pressed to explain the secret hold over my imagination Gide exerted; but since I hesitate to anatomize the man to explain the magic away, let me simply speak of Gide in the same way I have heard Will Shakespeare praise good men:

Gide is an immaculate prose stylist, a strong moralist and comic ironist par excellence; a blending of intellect and emotion, with only sensuality and solitude to bring his luminous flights to ground every so often; a character shoveled with fits of sentiment and fires of redemption which his airy emotional nature could never bear to fully actualize; a man, in short, in whom all the fruits of the intellect grew delicately from the moral sentiments without any intervening sense of individual labor, private hope of restraint of instinct or release from reason, or evasion from the duty of his talent.

Soon after I bought the Penguin edition of Gide's Journals. I found myself disappointed. What magic had been in the text? - I could not recapture it. The book was water damaged and stiff after some years in my mother's basement, and when I re-read it this year it sounded as if it had been never written but only translated. The Penguin translation of Gide's Journals was execrable. Let me see who the job fell upon... Justin O'Brien. Seems he also wrote a frigidly inadequate introduction.

Last week I came upon the old blue bound books. They were forty dollars in the snobby overpriced antiquarian bookshop on North Terrace. But after I verified they were the same books I had devoured so eagerly as a teen, I longingly put them back on the shelf. Better the memory of a magical read than the disillusionment of a mediocre second read. Or was it simply that I did not wish to fall in love again with that luminous prose, and thereby find myself spending forty dollars on the Journals?

Crikey - It's Proust!

Reading Montaigne on the train today I came upon this:

"The men whose society and intimacy I seek are those who are called well-bred and talented men; and the thought of these gives me a distaste for others. Their kind is, rightly considered, the rarest that we have, a kind that owes almost everything to nature. The purpose of our intercourse is simply intimacy, familiarity, and talk; the exercise of the mind is our sole gain. In our conversations all subjects are alike to me. I do not care if there is no depth or weight in them; they always possess charm, and they always keep to the point. All is colored by a ripe and steady judgment, blended with kindness, candor, gaiety, and friendship... I know my kind even by their silences and their smiles... Hippomachus said truly he that he knew a good wrestler simply by seeing him walk in the street."

I read this with a shock of recognition. Crikey, I said to myself, he's talking about Proust!

It is no good telling me that Proust and Montaigne live three centuries apart. Just imagine Montaigne and Proust in conversation! (I consider myself humbly fortunate to have friends who can follow my conversation at all.)

Neither it is any use telling me that Gide or Saint-Beuve could fit the bill. They do not. Saint-Beuve is Montaigne's disciple, not his mate; and Gide - his diminution.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

How to Be A Great Friend: The Great Books of the Western World on Great Friendship.

These are the basic readings on friendship. If you want to be a great friend, here is how.

1. Start with Lysis. This is supposed to be about friendship but actually Socrates is just teasing. Listen in on how Socrates uses the passion for Lysis to direct him to a wise end? This is one aspect of being a great friend: direct your friend to their own greatness. The Lysis of Plato is the single best instruction manual on making friends with young people, because it shows intead of tells you how.

2. Next, read Cicero On Friendship. If the Lysis is the best guide to young friends, the dialog On Friendship by Cicero is the best instructions on how to make friends with elders. Notice how wonderfully Gaius and Quintus draw Laelius out; can you see how they manipulate him with words to show his best qualities? Since it is no deceit to bring out good qualities in your friends, the text of this short dialog really shows another great lesson in friendship: use words to draw out the best qualities in your friend.

3. Finally, we come to a crucial parting point in the lessons on friendship: whether to follow the heart or the head? Francis Bacon is a friend of the head variety, whereas Michel de Montaigne is a friend of the heart. Both have essays entitled ¨On Friendship¨. Between them you must choose your lesson. Which is more important to you? Which is more important to your friend? And, are you aware of the consequences of either path? Among friends with worldly goals and practical concerns, this is the essential thing to know. So the lesson these two men suggest is: Be aware of what kind of friendship you are in, heart or head, and what consequences flow from that.

4. Last but not least are the ethical analyses of Aristotle, the reasoning of Epictetus, and the essay of Seneca. These mordant analysts cover the same material as Cicero with less charm. And they instruct me in the finest lesson of friendship, which is: Be friends only with people who make you happy and who you love to make happy. Because anything that lasts must make the effort to be charming. This

There they are: my four lessons of friendship:
1. Direct your friend to their own greatness. (Especially in young friends)
2. Use words to draw out the best qualities in your friend. (Especially in elder friends)
3. Be aware of what kind of friendship you are in, and what consequences flow from that. (Especially in peers)
4. Be friends only with people who make you happy and who you love to make happy.

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