Showing posts from January, 2018

Unripe fruit - Alexander von Humboldt

Alexander von Humboldt must have met Reinhard von Haeften at the very end of 1793 or early the following year. In April, Haeften came to stay in Bad Steben and, about a month later, Humboldt let slip, in a letter to Carl Freiesleben, that in Bayreuth “everybody knows that I live under one roof with Lieutenant Haeften, who is always around”.

In November, another letter reached Freiesleben. Might he like to accompany Humboldt on a journey to Switzerland? They would be joined by a third party:
This person is a Herr von Haeften, Lieutenant with the local Grevenitz regiment . . . . This Reinhard von Haeften has for a year now been my only, and hourly company. I live together with him; he comes to visit me in the mountains [Bad Steben]. I have, to enjoy him the better, completely broken away from all other society.A geological trip on which, as Freiesleben must have concluded, Humboldt’s attention would mostly be devoted to an unknown lieutenant, can’t have been an entirely attractive propo…

Milton's Morality

In 2016, during the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, the Bard was feted by dozens of books, hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, performances of his plays, lectures, and a Shakespeare Day gala attended by Prince Charles himself. The London Tube map replaced the names of its stops with titles of Shakespeare’s plays. Google, of course, did a doodle.

In 2017, it was all Jane Austen—the 200th anniversary of the novelist’s death. Like Shakespeare the year before, she was everywhere, not least in the pages of the New York Times, which ran some 20 articles on her, musing about everything from what she might tell us about Brexit to why the alt-right loves her so much. The Atlantic stated unambiguously that “Jane Austen Is Everything,” and it sure did feel that way. Her face now graces the U.K.’s new £10 note.

Pity poor John Milton. Last year also marked the 350th anniversary of the publication of Paradise Lost, the greatest epic poem in English and one of the greatest w…

Joseph Conrad: Old man of the sea

When Joseph Conrad began The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ in 1896 he had two novels to his name, and had recently concluded a twenty-year career as a British merchant seaman. His two earlier books, Almayer’s Folly (1895) and An Outcast of the Islands (1896), were both set in the Malay archipelago; The Nigger was the story in which he turned directly to his experience as a mariner for inspiration. It is the tale of James Wait, a black sailor from St Kitts who is dying of tuberculosis on board the merchant ship Narcissus as it sails from Bombay to London. Wait’s illness elicits wildly different reactions from his fellow crew members: pity, suspicion, frustration, indifference; and the values they assign to his eventual death – coming just after the ship itself nearly sinks – are an index not just of their varying casts of mind but of their humanity. The racial slur in the title of the British edition (the book appeared in America as The Children of the Sea) is a crude reflection of the cre…

What Life in Confinement Meant for Ezra Pound’s Work

Perhaps no other poet in the 20th century presents more forcefully than does Ezra Pound the need to separate the life from the work — and the impossibility of doing so. Pound’s visionary role in leading poetry in English into the modern, after the etiolations of the late 19th century, seems incontestable. So do his generosity and loyalty as a critic and friend (to Eliot, Joyce and others), his tirelessness as a teacher, his unorthodox brilliance as a translator from multiple languages and above all, his supreme ambition for poetry, expressed in his long poem the “Cantos,” and in its animating conviction that poetry not only could but should guide the practical motions of society itself.

On the other hand, Pound was a sort of Antaeus. As long as his feet were on the ground that fed him with images and experiences, he was a giant. In the air, as a seer, a social theorist and a philosopher, he was notoriously vulnerable. He worshiped strong leaders; he indulged in a virulent anti-Semitism…

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Six weeks after a London criminal court permitted the unexpurgated publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover on November 2, 1960, a forlorn rearguard action took place in the crimson and gold chamber of the House of Lords, then still a chamber of hereditary peers, profoundly conservative in a rural and military way. The sixth earl of Craven recounted an experience he had recently had at a bleak modernist café on a concrete bridge over the new superhighway from London to Manchester, itself a symbol of Britain’s modern age.

Describing D. H. Lawrence’s famous but overrated novel as “a book with a filthy reputation known to every schoolboy troubled by desire,” the noble earl recalled with dismay the scene he had witnessed. “At every serving counter sat a snigger of youths. Every one of them had a copy of this book held up to his face with one hand while he forked nourishment into his open mouth with the other. They held the seeds of suggestive lust, which was expressed quite blatantly, by gla…

Balzac’s Novel of Female Friendship

Out of the more than ninety novels that make up the so-called Human Comedy of Honoré de Balzac, only a handful are still widely read or assigned in schools, at least in the Anglo-American world: Père Goriot, Eugénie Grandet, Lost Illusions, perhaps Cousin Bette, the late novel from which I first learned to read French by dutifully looking up every other word. Yet Balzac was arguably the creator of the modern social novel, “the first and foremost member of his craft” and “the master of us all,” according to Henry James, who wrote about him again and again. His influence was pivotal for writers as varied as James, Flaubert, Zola, Dostoyevsky, and Dreiser, all of whom imitated yet rebelled against him. To his successors he was a rough-hewn genius with an immense appetite for life. “What a man he would have been had he known how to write,” said Flaubert. “But that was the only thing he lacked. After all, an artist would never have accomplished so much nor had such breadth.” They were awed…

Li Qingzhao: The Approach of Happiness

The wind has stopped,
the fallen flowers fallen

Outside the window, their red petals,
heaped like snow,

the memory,
of crab-apples—a time
when spring is wounded.

The wine is spent, the song
finished. The jade pitcher empty.

The bronze lamp flickers and dims.

I cannot bear
such secret bitterness,
or even one more cry
of the shrike.

Translated by Wendy Chen

The Ghost and the Princess - The correspondence of René Descartes and Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia

There is an “official theory” about the nature of minds that “hails chiefly from Descartes,” wrote Gilbert Ryle, an Oxford philosopher. According to the theory, each person has a mind that is a private, inner world. It has no spatial dimensions and is not subject to laws that govern physical objects, yet it is mysteriously connected to a material body during a person’s earthly life. Ryle dubbed this “the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine.”

People have not always thought of the mind and the body in this way. Homer’s heroes are not depicted as composites that are only partly physical. Their awareness, intelligence, and other mental activities are part of their bodily lives. And although the shades of the dead lurk in the Homeric underworld, these etiolated creatures are little more than fading echoes of the living. Some later Greek philosophers explicitly stated that the soul is made of physical stuff. For Democritus, it was tiny units of solid matter. For the Stoics, it was a mixture of…

Du Fu: Ballad of the Ancient Cypress

Before Kongming's shrine stands an ancient cypress,
Its branches are like green bronze, its roots just like stone.
The frosted bark, slippery with rain, is forty spans around,
Its blackness blends into the sky two thousand feet above.
Master and servant have each already reached their time's end,
The tree, however, still remains, receiving men's devotion.
Clouds come and bring the air of Wuxia gorge's vastness,
The moon comes out, along with the cold of snowy mountain whiteness.

I think back to the winding road, east of Brocade Pavilion,
Where the military master and his lord of old share a hidden temple.
Towering that trunk, those branches, on the ancient plain,
Hidden paintings, red and black, doors and windows empty.
Spreading wide, coiling down, though it holds the earth,
In the dim and distant heights are many violent winds.
That which gives it its support must be heaven's strength,
The reason for its uprightness, the creator's skill.

If a great hall should teeter, wantin…