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The Necessity Of Judgement - Montaigne

When faced with a biography that could as well stop a door as fill a shelf, one’s first question is always, “Does the subject merit this exhaustive treatment?” There are a few historical characters about whom one wishes to know everything, but not very many. One would like to know, for example, what Hitler or Stalin had for breakfast, even though such information would add nothing to one’s historical understanding and in effect be perfectly useless. Of most authors, however, a biographical essay suffices, and indeed requires more real intellect to write well than a lengthy recitation of every known fact about its subject. Stefan Zweig (who wrote a book about Montaigne) used to say that the art of writing was more in knowing what to leave out than what to put in, and his first drafts were often six times longer than his final version.

At first sight, Michel de Montaigne, who after all wrote a book of a thousand pages both about and to please himself, might be thought unworthy of minute …

"The era of world literature is at hand" - Goethe

On the afternoon of 31 January 1827, a new vision of literature was born. On that day, Johann Peter Eckermann, faithful secretary to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, went over to his master’s house, as he had done hundreds of times in the past three and a half years. Goethe reported that he had been reading Chinese Courtship (1824), a Chinese novel. ‘Really? That must have been rather strange!’ Eckermann exclaimed. ‘No, much less so than one thinks,’ Goethe replied.

A surprised Eckermann ventured that this Chinese novel must be exceptional. Wrong again. The master’s voice was stern: ‘Nothing could be further from the truth. The Chinese have thousands of them, and had them when our ancestors were still living in the trees.’ Then Goethe reached for the term that stunned his secretary: ‘The era of world literature is at hand, and everyone must contribute to accelerating it.’ World literature – the idea of world literature – was born out of this conversation in Weimar, a provincial German town …

“Time to Plant Tears” - Elizabeth Bishop

Megan Marshall’s Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast is actually two books bound in the same cover. Both are interesting, but one is much better than the other. The first “book” is a compelling new biography of Bishop, who is now widely considered the most important American poet of the mid-20th century. Using a wealth of new material, including the poet’s letters to her lovers and psychoanalyst, Marshall has crafted the most intimate and accurate biography yet available. Anyone interested in Bishop’s life and work will need to read this moving and often revelatory new account. 

The second “book” consists of seven short memoirs by Marshall that surround each chapter of the formal biography. These sections purport to provide personal perspective on Bishop—Marshall was once her student at Harvard—but are essentially sketches of the biographer’s own life. Accounting for one-sixth of the book’s total length, these reminiscences often have little to do with Bishop and weigh down the …

A Poet for the Age of Brexit - A. E. Housman

Great poets fall into two categories: those whose public personas are of a piece with their work, and those whose personalities seem to contradict their work. If you met, say, Lord Byron, you would have no doubt that this was the man who wrote “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” Byron was as dramatic, world-weary, and scandalous in a drawing room as he was on the page. By contrast, if you were introduced to T. S. Eliot, you might have trouble making the connection between this buttoned-up bank clerk and the nightmare enchantment of “The Waste Land.” The patron saint of this latter type—the poet whose poetry is conspicuously at odds with his or her person—would have to be Alfred Edward Housman, the author of A Shropshire Lad and a writer who became, over the course of the 20th century, a kind of tutelary genius of Englishness.

The 63 lyrics in that book, first published in 1896, have a purity of speech and intensity of feeling that lent the collection the aura of a classic from the moment of …

A Legacy of Spies - John le Carré

Old age marks a rendezvous with reality that provokes timeless questions. At the end of John le Carré’s new novel, his greatest creation, George Smiley, observes that “an old spy in his dotage seeks the truth of ages”.

As he approaches 86, David Cornwell, AKA John le Carré, still has to make a necessary rapprochement with his divided self, his past and its achievements. There are, no doubt, obscure and unreconciled regrets, obsessions and disappointments. But if you are lucky, as Cornwell has been, to retain your joie de vivre and your marbles, this final reckoning offers the resolution of an inner conflict. Le Carré has always loved German literature, and he knows his Heidegger: “Every man is born as many men, and dies as a single one.”

The “legacy” of his title tells us that Le Carré is in the posterity business. If he is playing for keeps, there are just three questions to which his dedicated readers will require an answer: what is A Legacy of Spies about? What is its deeper purpose?…

The Age of Innocence - Early letters from Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton, in her 1934 autobiography, “A Backward Glance,” made ironical sport of the fact that, as a child, she was forbidden to read novels. By then in her seventies and the author of twenty-five works of fiction, she wrote that her mother, Lucretia Jones—a society hostess who, in Wharton’s telling, was indifferent to the life of the mind—decreed “that I should never read a novel without asking her permission. . . . In order to save further trouble she almost always refused to let me read it.”

One novel that Wharton did read, however, was “Daniel Deronda,” by George Eliot. It is not recorded whether Lucretia sanctioned this tale, which centers on the ill-advised marriage between the sadistic Henleigh Grandcourt and the impoverished Gwendolen Harleth, and the unrequited love of Gwendolen for the intellectual, questing Daniel Deronda; but, one way or another, Wharton obtained a copy in September, 1876, the year of its publication, and delivered a witty critique of Eliot’s work. “Th…

What, exactly, do philosophers do?

What, exactly, do philosophers do? Are they primarily engaged in inward-looking technical debates, or are they the leading innovators who frame wider projects? In this elegantly written and insightful survey of selected thinkers from Hobbes and Descartes to Voltaire and Rousseau via Spinoza, Locke, Bayle, Leibniz and Hume, Anthony Gottlieb argues for their key role in the formation of the Enlightenment. As an exercise in making philosophical writing widely accessible, this is a blast of fresh air; better still, the volume is one of a trilogy, following his widely praised The Dream of Reason (2001), and we have one more to come. But that putative outcome may be questioned. 

Communicators of genius have organizing frameworks too. In Gottlieb’s account, this 150-year “staccato burst” of European philosophy was a response to two leading stimuli: “Europe’s wars of religion and the rise of Galilean science”. This phase (one of only two in philosophy’s history, he claims) happened when some …