Category: Lit & Crit

“Reason is an excellent thing, there’s no disputing that, but reason is nothing but reason and satisfies only the rational side of man’s nature, while will is a manifestation of the whole life, that is, of the whole human life including reason and all the impulses. And although our life, in this manifestation of it, is often worthless, yet it is life and not simply extracting square roots. Here I, for instance, quite naturally want to live, in order to satisfy all my capacities for life, and not simply my capacity for reasoning, that is, not simply one twentieth of my capacity for life. What does reason know? Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning (some things, perhaps, it will never learn; this is a poor comfort, but why not say so frankly?) and human nature acts as a whole, with everything that is in it, consciously or unconsciously, and, even if it goes wrong, it lives.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground (trans. unknown)

“I was just going to say that the devil only knows what choice depends on, and that perhaps that was a very good thing, but I remembered the teaching of science … and pulled myself up. And here you have begun upon it. Indeed, if there really is some day discovered a formula for all our desires and caprices–that is, an explanation of what they depend upon, by what laws they arise, how they develop, what they are aiming at in one case and in another and so on, that is a real mathematical formula–then, most likely, man will at once cease to feel desire, indeed, he will be certain to. For who would want to choose by rule? Besides, he will at once be transformed from a human being into an organ-stop or something of the sort; for what is a man without desires, without free will and without choice, if not a stop in an organ? What do you think? Let us reckon the chances–can such a thing happen or not?” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground (trans. unknown)

“Civilisation has made mankind if not more bloodthirsty, at least more vilely, more loathsomely bloodthirsty. In old days he saw justice in bloodshed and with his conscience at peace exterminated those he thought proper. Now we do think bloodshed abominable and yet we engage in this abomination, and with more energy than ever. Which is worse? Decide that for yourselves.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground (trans. unknown)

“Oh, if I had done nothing simply from laziness! Heavens, how I should have respected myself, then. I should have respected myself because I should at least have been capable of being lazy; there would at least have been one quality, as it were, positive in me, in which I could have believed myself. Question: What is he? Answer: A sluggard; how very pleasant it would have been to hear that of oneself! It would mean that I was positively defined, it would mean that there was something to say about me. ‘Sluggard’–why, it is a calling and vocation, it is a career.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground (trans. unknown)

“Nature does not ask your permission, she has nothing to do with your wishes, and whether you like her laws or dislike them, you are bound to accept her as she is, and consequently all her conclusions. A wall, you see, is a wall … and so on, and so on.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground (trans. unknown)

“I am forty years old now, and you know forty years is a whole lifetime; you know it is extreme old age. To live longer than forty years is bad manners, is vulgar, immoral. Who does live beyond forty? Answer that, sincerely and honestly I will tell you who do: fools and worthless fellows.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground (trans. unknown)

“It would be nice, if it were possible to arrest life. But it goes on. What does it mean, — life goes on? Life goes on, means, — the hair falls out and grows gray, the teeth decay, there appear wrinkles, and there is an odour in the mouth. Even before everything ends, everything becomes terrible and disgusting: you perceive the pasty paint and powder, the sweat, the stench, the homeliness. Where is that which I served? Where is beauty? And it is all. If it is not, — there is nothing. There is no life. Not only is there no life in what seemed to have life, but you, too, begin to get away from it, to grow feeble, to look homely, to decay, while others before your very eyes seize from you those pleasures in which was the whole good of life. More than that: there begins to glint the possibility of another life, something else, some other union of men with the whole world, such as excludes all those deceptions, something else, something that cannot be impaired by anything, that is true and always beautiful. But that cannot be, — it is only the provoking sight of an oasis, when we know that it is not there and that everything is sand.” – Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, “The Works of Guy de Maupassant” (trans. unknown)

“Read as little as possible of literary criticism — such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are just clever word-games, in which one view wins today, and tomorrow the opposite view. Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them.” – Rainier Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet” (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

“Irony: Don’t let yourself be controlled by it, especially during uncreative moments. When you are fully creative, try to use it, as one more way to take hold of life. Used purely, it too is pure, and one needn’t be ashamed of it; but if you feel yourself becoming too familiar with it, if you are afraid of this growing familiarity, then turn to great and serious objects, in front of which it becomes small and helpless.” – Rainier Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet” (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

“Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.” – Rainier Maria Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet” (trans. Stephen Mitchell)

“Do not let us suppose that love of order is love of art. It is true that order, in its highest sense, is one of the necessities of art, just as time is a necessity of music; but love of order has no more to do with our right enjoyment of architecture or painting, than love of punctuality with the appreciation of an opera. Experience, I fear, teaches us that accurate and methodical habits in daily life are seldom characteristic of those who either quickly perceive or richly possess the creative powers of art; there is, however, nothing inconsistent between the two instincts, and nothing to hinder us from retaining our business habits, and yet fully allowing and enjoying the noblest gifts of invention.” – John Ruskin, “The Nature of Gothic”

“In an egg, as in the meat of a chicken, in beef, or in mutton, in milk, in everything, one perceives, and ought to taste, the juice, the quintessence of all the food on which the animal has fed. How much better food we could have if more attention were paid to this!” – Guy de Maupassant, “Madame Husson’s ‘Rosier’ “ (trans. McMaster, et al.)

Silentium

Speak not, lie hidden, and conceal
the way you dream, the things you feel.
Deep in your spirit let them rise
akin to stars in crystal skies
that set before the night is blurred:
delight in them and speak no word.

How can a heart expression find?
How should another know your mind?
Will he discern what quickens you?
A thought once uttered is untrue.
Dimmed is the fountainhead when stirred:
drink at the source and speak no word.

Live in your inner self alone
within your soul a world has grown,
the magic of veiled thoughts that might
be blinded by the outer light,
drowned in the noise of day, unheard…
take in their song and speak no word.

– Fyodor Tyutchev (translated by Vladimir Nabokov)

“Greek democracies could never pardon the introduction of new gods. Their objection to this was not, however, that the gods in question were false gods. If they had been so, it would not have mattered so much. What they could not tolerate was that any one should establish a private means of communication between himself and the unseen powers. This introduced, as it were, an unknown and incalculable element into the arrangements of the State, which might very likely be hostile to the democracy, and was in any case a standing menace to the mass of the citizens, who had no means of propitiating the intruding divinity. And it was nearly as bad to worship the ordinary gods of the State in a private way; for it was manifestly unfair that any section of the community should have access to the supreme dispensers of good and ill at times and seasons when the ordinary man was excluded. The religious creed of the Greek citizen may, in short, be summed up in the single tenet promulgated by the Delphic oracle that all must worship ‘according to the use of the city,’ and none must be suffered to gain the private ear of the gods for the furtherance of his own end.” – John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy

“Ancient religions cared nothing for a man’s belief, if only it did not set him in open opposition to the public worship of the State, and, so long as the proper ceremonial was correctly performed, any explanation of it that occurred to the spectator might be given. He might believe or disbelieve that the Mysteries taught the doctrine of immortality; the essential thing was that he should duly sacrifice his pig.” – John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy

“The fondness for the jingle leaves us with that for the rattles and baubles of childhood, and if we continue to read rhymed verse at a later period of life it is such only where the poet has had force enough to bring great beauties of thought and diction into this form. When young any composition pleases which unites a little sense, some imagination, and some rhythm, in doses however small. But as we advance in life these things fall off one by one.” – Thomas Jefferson, “Thoughts on English Prosody”

“Let us preserve our reputation by performing our engagements; our credit by fulfilling our contracts; and friends by gratitude and kindness; for we know not how soon we may again have occasion for all of them.” – Benjamin Franklin, “Letter to Samuel Mather”, May 12, 1784

“Take care that you never spell a word wrong. Always before you write a word consider how it is spelt, and if you do not remember it, turn to a dictionary. It produces great praise to a lady to spell well.” – Thomas Jefferson, “Letter to Martha Jefferson”, November 28, 1783

“I want my poems to have edges. To be more like a photograph than a movie. 35mm, a rule of dimensions: what is and is not in the shot. If you want to include more in the image than will fit, you have to change where you stand. Either that or change the world: Move the saltshaker in front of the woman. Ask her to scoot closer to the light. In the poem, I can pretend the saltshaker was there, or neglect mention of it. The woman can keep moving. I’m writing her in one way, but this is not how it is, she’s already out of the light, and though I call her back, she’s gone. The room is a room and goes around me in every direction, populated with objects I can’t hope to include. I move close to the saltshaker and find that it’s filled with tiny stones. This isn’t true, but I live in the lawless room of the stanza. Every image I write is a lie. I feel guilty and proud.” – Victoria Kornick, “Migraine Season”

“We may destroy our civilization, but we cannot escape it. We may savor a soured remorse at the growth of civilization, but that will yield us no large or lasting reward. There is no turning back: our only way is a radical struggle for the City of the Just.” – Irving Howe, “The City in Literature”

“The suspicion of the city and all it represents seems to run so deeply in our culture that it would be impossible to eradicate it, even if anyone were naive enough to wish to. In its sophisticated variants it is a suspicion necessary for sanity, if only because modern civilization cannot yield very much to its demands. And perhaps, for all we know, it is a suspicion emblematic of some ineradicable tragedy in the human condition: the knowledge that makes us cherish innocence makes innocence unattainable.” – Irving Howe, “The City in Literature”

“The suspicion of artifice and cultivation, the belief in the superior moral and therapeutic uses of the ‘natural,’ the fear that corruption must follow upon a high civilization—such motifs appear to be strongly ingrained in Western Christianity and the civilization carrying it. There are Sodom and Gomorrah. There is the whore of Babylon. There is the story of Joseph and his brothers, charmingly anticipating a central motif within modern fiction: Joseph, who must leave the pastoral setting of his family because he is too smart to spend his life with sheep, prepares for a series of tests, ventures into the court of Egypt, and then, beyond temptation, returns to his fathers. And there is the story of Jesus, shepherd of his flock. Western culture bears, then, a deeply-grounded tradition that sees the city as a place both inimical and threatening. It bears, also, another tradition, both linked and opposed, sacred and secular: we need only remember St. Augustine’s City of God or Aristotle’s view that ‘Men come together in the city in order to live, they remain there in order to live the good life.’ ” – Irving Howe, “The City in Literature”