Now you see it, now you

“Away, then, with sharp practice and trickery, which desires, of course, to pass for wisdom, but is far from it and totally unlike it. For the function of wisdom is to discriminate between good and evil; whereas, inasmuch as all things morally wrong are evil, trickery prefers the evil to the good.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis (trans. Miller)

Shields up. We’re going in. Ahead slow, helmsman.

“There is something reassuring and even restorative about a voice that is not too encroached upon by the intricacies of the world, anxieties of psychoanalysis, or the implications of a mechanized disenchanted planet. That is to say, the sculpting of the prose itself is not deranged by the catastrophes that surround us, though the catastrophes may or may not be present in the representation of the world. There is stoicism in this model of storytelling. Affability too. Faith in creation. Lack of faith all too often produces an ironizing narration, a distancing of the author from his tools and spawn. Sheepish authorial embarrassment, pointing giddily at the fictitiousness of fictions. Is that a remnant of capitalist, bourgeois prejudice against mere made up stuff stinking of idleness?” — Elvis Bego, “Dr. Aira: In Defense of Short Books”

Literary Levittowns

“Having spent some time lately reading American journals, I would say that much of the writing is of a high caliber, there is plenty of fantastic thinking in fiction out there, but one also notices in too many places something like a common house style. A style learned, pruned from the lectern. Too many writers keep building a clearly programmatic, indoctrinated structure, peopled with programmatic, indoctrinated gestures toward the heart. The prevalence of rhetorical pathos through fiction, a cornucopia of sincerity. Sincerity is prolix. And once that first novel is contemplated, the forests rustle in terror. Here’s another ‘sweating, free-dreaming maniac with another thousand-pager,’ as [Martin] Amis put it.

“Sincerity is inelegant, it doesn’t know condensed articulation. It always ranges exclusively horizontally and settles flat around its subject. It does not and cannot penetrate, though it may try. It may be adequate, polished, but one is tempted to ask: is it necessary? Is it urgent?

“Authentic fiction is not sincere; it transmogrifies fantasy into truth. But truth and sincerity are not synonyms. Fiction wants to leap into the space of meaning and self, even when the setting is panoramic, horizontal. W.G. Sebald, whose books really mostly consist of short prose fictions, is always relentlessly arcing inward this way, and a page of, say, The Emigrants yields more in the way of cerebral stimulation (the heart too is pinched, but not cheaply, not feebly) than a thousand of those other, earnest, sincere ones. The sincere artist itemizes easy facts and turns them into easy truths. Or rather, does not turn them into anything: they stand there naked, never having been dressed.

“And all these educated writers: there is something vulgar about all that competence. Although I’m not sure authentic writing can be taught, it is certainly possible to teach all the right-sounding, writerly, artisanal gestures. Curiously, the preoccupation with Voice produces an amazing amount of very similar narrative voices: all those cute first-person narrators.” — Elvis Bego, “Dr. Aira: In Defense of Short Books”

Infinitely American

“Big books, big Novels, as Martin Amis diagnosed long ago, seem inherently an American addiction. America, vast in space and in ambition, seems to goad its writers to impose a brazen intentionality onto the marketplace. The American writer’s appetite must be omnivorous, his palette the trunk of a sequoia, his cast not smaller than a minor duchy, a perversion of Dostoevsky. And yet how often you read one of those baggy monsters and there’s nothing there but explosions of trivial pleonasm. The imagination slumbers, the talent something that happened to other people. That’s one tendency. On the other hand you have those endless, sentimental, middleclass novels of domestic interaction, a perversion of Chekhov. Whether it is the vastness of the country or its multifariousness, each year brings a thousand thousand-page bricks, each usually a tomb for dead language, and a desiccated, catastrophically pious imagination. For each DeLillo, a thousand of these others, for each McCarthy another thousand tumble forth in unison.

“Byron used to say that he never saw a doctor without thinking, Here’s a man who missed his vocation. For me, a trip to the bookstore does the same, once I’ve read a page or two of almost any of the fat new books huddling on the shelves. So much misplaced ambition. So much banality. Often you see material perhaps sufficient for a five-page story stretched to six hundred of the soporific best.

“Who writes these things?

“Often, it seems, it’s some person burnt out in the workplace, hoping for an easy career change. Imagine, I can sit at home, and get paid to make shit up! And the air thins along with the crowns of trees.

“I also think about all those MFA programs in, gasp, Creative Writing. (Are there other kinds of writing? Even The Da Vinci Code is some sort of creative writing, so why the modifier?) Are they improving or simply flooding the bookstores? Are they too narrow in their catechism? Do we have too many writers?

“I am reminded of that story by Will Self, ‘The Quantity Theory of Insanity,’ and the idea of a finite amount of mental equilibrium. Does talent not figure in the same way? There are only so many good and great writers at any time.

“Let us assume that a thousand new-minted writers exit the universities with their writing diplomas each year. Of these, reasonably, only a fraction can be good, good meaning necessary, the rest adequate. Don’t get me wrong, I think a genuinely gifted writer could use a few years intensely scrutinizing his work with other gifted, literate people. Above all, with other gifted readers. But how many are those? And the art (not the habit) of reading is as endangered in academia as out of it.

“Now, many of the best and most prestigious literary journals are run by MFA programs, edited by MFA writers, filled by MFA writing. Notice the circularity, like in a consummated nightmare.” — Elvis Bego, “Dr. Aira: In Defense of Short Books”

Probably

“If nobody were to know or even to suspect the truth, when you do anything to gain riches or power or sovereignty or sensual gratification — if your act should be hidden for ever from the knowledge of gods and men, would you do it?” – Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis (trans. Miller)

Politics as usual

“It is the error of men who are not strictly upright to seize upon something that seems to be expedient and straightway to dissociate that from the question of moral right. To this error the assassin’s dagger, the poisoned cup, the forged wills owe their origin; this gives rise to theft, embezzlement of public funds, exploitation and plundering of provincials and citizens; this engenders also the lust for excessive wealth, for despotic power, and finally for making oneself king even in the midst of a free people.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis (trans. Miller)

Now get to it

“You have to write the thing you feel is missing from the world, that’s not on the bookshelves, the book that you would want to read if you’d heard about it, the book that you long for. And you have to be really honest about what that is. You can’t necessarily write the book that will earn you the respect of other people who are the guardians of the culture. Because you appointed them to be. That can’t  be the motive. You have to write the book your heart wishes existed.” — Elizabeth Gilbert (from interview by Rachel Khong in Rumpus)

Walking the fine line

“Individual health is preserved by studying one’s own constitution, by observing what is good or bad for one, by constant self-control in supplying physical wants and comforts (but only to the extent necessary to selfpreservation), by forgoing sensual pleasures, and finally, by the professional skill of those to whose science these matters belong.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis (trans. Miller)

A balancing act

“Those whose office it is to look after the interests of the state will refrain from that form of liberality which robs one man to enrich another. Above all, they will use their best endeavours that everyone shall be protected in the possession of his own property by the fair administration of the law and the courts, that the poorer classes shall not be oppressed because of their helplessness, and that envy shall not stand in the way of the rich, to prevent them from keeping or recovering possession of what justly belongs to them.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis (trans. Miller)

Banking on it

“We must take measures that there shall be no indebtedness of a nature to endanger the public safety. It is a menace that can be averted in many ways; but should a serious debt be incurred, we are not to allow the rich to lose their property, while the debtors profit by what is their neighbour’s. For there is nothing that upholds a government more powerfully than its credit; and it can have no credit, unless the payment of debts is enforced by law.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis (trans. Miller)

Getting it sorted out

“I hold that an attempt to control the Senate on the part of the Executive is subversive of the principles of our Constitution. The Executive department is independent of the Senate, and the Senate is independent of the President. In maters of legislation the President has a veto on the action of the Senate, and in appointments and treaties the Senate has a veto on the President. He has no more right to tell me how I shall vote on his appointments than I have to tell him whether he shall veto or approve a bill that the Senate has passed. Whenever you recognize the right of the Executive to say to a Senator, ‘Do this, or I will take off the heads of your friends,’ you convert this Government from a republic into a despotism. Whenever you recognize the right of a President to say to a member of Congress, ‘Vote as I tell you, or I will bring a power to bear against you at home which will crush you,’ you destroy the independence of the representative, and convert him into a tool of Executive power.” – Stephen A. Douglas, Political Debates Between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas

In the valley of the shadow of youth

“In the Valley of Youth, through which all wayfarers must pass on their journey from the Land of Mystery to the Land of the Infinite, there is a village where the pilgrim rests and indulges in various excursions for which the valley is celebrated.  There also gather many guides in this spot, some of whom show the stranger all the various points of common interest, and others of whom take visitors to special points from which the views are of peculiar significance.  As time has gone on new paths have opened, and new resting places have been made from which these views are best obtained.  Some of the mountain peaks have been neglected in the past, but of late they too have been scaled, and paths have been hewn out that approach the summits, and many pilgrims ascend them and find that the result is abundantly worth the effort and the time.

“The effect of these several improvements has been a natural and usually friendly rivalry in the body of guides that show the way.  The mountains have not changed, and the views are what they have always been.  But there are not wanting those who say, ‘My mountain may not be as lofty as yours, but it is easier to ascend’; or ‘There are quarries on my peak, and points of view from which a building may be seen in process of erection, or a mill in operation, or a canal, while your mountain shows only a stretch of hills and valleys, and thus you will see that mine is the more profitable to visit.’  Then there are guides who are themselves often weak of limb, and who are attached to numerous sand dunes, and they say to the weaker pilgrims, ‘Why tire yourselves climbing a rocky mountain when here are peaks whose summits you can reach with ease and from which the view is just as good as that from the most famous precipice?’  The result is not wholly disadvantageous, for many who pass through the valley are able to approach the summits of the sand dunes only, and would make progress with greatest difficulty should they attempt to scale a real mountain, although even for them it would be better to climb a little way where it is really worth the effort instead of spending all their efforts on the dunes.

“Then too, there have of late come guides who have shown much ingenuity by digging tunnels into some of the greatest mountains.  These they have paved with smooth concrete, and have arranged for rubber-tired cars that run without jar to the heart of some mountain.  Arrived there the pilgrim has a glance, as the car swiftly turns in a blaze of electric light, at a roughly painted panorama of the view from the summit, and he is assured by the guide that he has accomplished all that he would have done, had he laboriously climbed the peak itself.

“In the midst of all the advocacy of sand-dune climbing, and of rubber-tired cars to see a painted view, the great body of guides still climb their mountains with their little groups of followers, and the vigor of the ascent and the magnificence of the view still attract all who are strong and earnest, during their sojourn in the Valley of Youth.” – David Eugene Smith, The Teaching of Geometry (1911)

Flatlanders

“Just as a being may be imagined as having only two dimensions, and living always on a plane surface (in a space of two dimensions), and having no conception of a space of three dimensions, so we may think of ourselves as living in a space of three dimensions but surrounded by a space of four dimensions.  The flat being could not point to a third dimension because he could not get out of his plane, and we cannot point to a fourth dimension because we cannot get out of our space.  Now what the flat being thinks is his plane may be the surface of an enormous sphere in our three dimensions; in other words, the space he lives in may curve through some higher space without his being conscious of it.  So our space may also curve through some higher space without our being conscious of it.” – David Eugene Smith, The Teaching of Geometry (1911)

What money can’t buy

“The moral sense of to-day is demoralized and depraved by our worship of wealth. Of what concern to any one of us is the size of another man’s fortune? It is, perhaps, an advantage to its possessor; but not always even that. But suppose it is; he may, to be sure, have more money to spend; but how is he any the better man for that? Still, if he is a good man, as well as a rich one, let not his riches be a hindrance to his being aided, if only they are not the motive to it; but in conferring favours our decision should depend entirely upon a man’s character, not on his wealth. The supreme rule, then, in the matter of kindnesses to be rendered by personal service is never to take up a case in opposition to the right nor in defence of the wrong. For the foundation of enduring reputation and fame is justice, and without justice there can be nothing worthy of praise.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis (trans. Miller)

More than 47 percent

“If one defends a man who is poor but honest and upright, all the lowly who are not dishonest — and there is a large proportion of that sort among the people — look upon such an advocate as a tower of defence raised up for them. I think, therefore, that kindness to the good is a better investment than kindness to the favourites of fortune. We must, of course, put forth every effort to oblige all sorts and conditions of men, if we can.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis (trans. Miller)

The business of charity

“Now in rendering helpful service to people, we usually consider either their character or their circumstances. And so it is an easy remark, and one commonly made, to say that in investing kindnesses we look not to people’s outward circumstances, but to their character. The phrase is admirable! But who is there, pray, that does not in performing a service set the favour of a rich and influential man above the cause of a poor, though most worthy, person? For, as a rule, our will is more inclined to the one from whom we expect a prompter and speedier return. But we should observe more carefully how the matter really stands: the poor man of whom we spoke cannot return a favour in kind, of course, but if he is a good man he can do it at least in thankfulness of heart.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis (trans. Miller)

Not commerce as we now know it

“It will, moreover, befit a gentleman to be at the same time liberal in giving and not inconsiderate in exacting his dues, but in every business relation — in buying or selling, in hiring or letting, in relations arising out of adjoining houses and lands — to be fair, reasonable, often freely yielding much of his own right, and keeping out of litigation as far as his interests will permit and perhaps even a little farther. For it is not only generous occasionally to abate a little of one’s rightful claims, but it is sometimes even advantageous. We should, however, have a care for our personal property, for it is discreditable to let it run through our fingers; but we must guard it in such a way that there shall be no suspicion of meanness or avarice. For the greatest privilege of wealth is, beyond all peradventure, the opportunity it affords for doing good, without sacrificing one’s fortune.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis (trans. Miller)

Assuming we know the bees’ motives

“As swarms of bees do not gather for the sake of making honeycomb but make the honeycomb because they are gregarious by nature, so human beings — and to a much higher degree — exercise their skill together in action and thought because they are naturally gregarious. And so, if that virtue which centres in the safeguarding of human interests, that is, in the maintenance of human society, were not to accompany the pursuit of knowledge, that knowledge would seem isolated and barren of results. In the same way, courage, if unrestrained by the uniting bonds of society, would be but a sort of brutality and savagery.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis (trans. Miller)

Not a rhetorical question

“Who is so absorbed in the investigation and study of creation, but that, even though he were working and pondering over tasks never so much worth mastering and even though he thought he could number the stars and measure the length and breadth of the universe, he would drop all those problems and cast them aside, if word were suddenly brought to him of some critical peril to his country, which he could relieve or repel?” – Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis (trans. Miller)