I’ve mocked people who have nothing to say, but, quite obviously, ‘having something to say’, does not necessarily mean having explicit observations about life. Camus’ L’etranger, to pick one example of many, contains, as far as I can recall, no witty truisms, but says something important about life. Plot, poetry and character are enough to make your point, and modern literature tends not towards the kind of ‘narrative confidence’ of nineteenth century literature, in which authors tell us this or that about how people are. Nevertheless, it is striking how modern literature contains practically nothing of explicit insight into the human condition. To end this series of quotes I’m going to list here a selection of the ‘observational contents’ of one great novel, Pere Goriot by Honoré de Balzac. I could have chosen plenty of other books, but this one will do. Compare what follows to anything published in the past fifty years…
Like all narrow-minded people, Madame Vauquer tended not to look beyond her own version of events or to examine root causes. She preferred to blame others for her own failings.
…one of the most unattractive habits of Lilliputian minds is to imagine that others share their pettiness.
According to the logic of the empty-headed, who keep nothing secret because they hold nothing sacred, those who keep themselves to themselves must have something to hide.
[Fashionable conversation involves] a strong element of chaff and [is] heavily dependent on pronunciation and delivery for its success. This kind of argot is in constant mutation. The shibboleth on which it turns never lasts longer than a month. A political event, a trial at the assizes, a street ballad, an actor’s spiel, everything feeds into this game of wit, which mainly consists of throwing words and ideas into the air like shuttlecocks and batting them to and fro around the room.
…he indulged himself in the recklessly madcap expectations which bring so much zest and emotion to the lives of young men: they anticipate neither obstacles nor dangers; all they can see is success, poeticizing their existence entirely in their imagination and feeling glum or discouraged at the failure of plans which had only ever existed in their wildest fancies; if they didn’t also happen to be shy and ignorant, the social world would be insufferable.
The open drawers of his brain, which he had banked on finding full of wit, slid shut, his aplomb deserted him.
Maxime, looking searchingly at him with that melting concern which betrays a woman’s secrets without her realizing.
Eugène was smouldering with that suppressed rage which drives a young man to plunge still deeper into the hole he has dug for himself, as if he hoped to find some way out at the bottom.
Mademoiselle Michonneau kept her eyes lowered, not daring to look at the money, for fear of revealing how she coveted it.
Rastignac had one of those heads packed with powder which explode on the slightest impact.
And so it goes on…
In the previous post I also mentioned that characters in modern literature are all so vague and amorphous, so interchangeable, that they can hardly be described as characters at all. Again I wouldn’t want to suggest that the kind of description I’m about to quote here is the only way character can be presented, or that the modern habit for the lightest of descriptive flecks — a habit I too am prone to — is necessarily wrong. Just that the conspicuous absence of something like this (from Dostoevsky’s The Devils; the Magarshak translation, the best in my view) — says, I believe, much more about the artistic poverty of our writers than anything else (although do note that Dostoevsky himself, in his very next book, introduces characters with barely a fluff of description, nothing like this);
He was a young man of about twenty-seven, slightly above medium height, with rather long, thin fair hair and with a wispy, barely discernible, moustache and beard. He was dressed decently, even fashionably, but not smartly; at the first glance he looked a little round shouldered and awkward, though in fact he was not round-shouldered at all, and rather free-and-easy in his manners…
No one could say that he was not good-looking, but no one liked his face. His head was elongated at the back and somewhat flattened at the sides, so that his face looked rather sharp. His forehead was high and narrow, but his features rather small; his eyes were sharp, his nose small and pointed, his lips long and thin. He looked a little ill, but it only seemed so. He had wrinkles on each cheek and near his cheek bones, which made him look like a man who had just recovered from a serious illness. And yet he was perfectly well and strong, and he had never been ill.
He walked and moved about very hurriedly, but he was in no hurry to go anywhere. It seemed as though nothing could embarrass him; he remained the same in any situation and in any society. He possessed a great deal of self-complacency, but he was completely unaware of it himself. He talked rapidly and hurriedly; but at the same time self-confidently, and he was never at a loss for a word. His thoughts were unruffled, for all his hurried appearance, precise and formal – and that was particularly noticeable. His articulation was amazingly clear; his words fell from his lips like large, smooth grains, always carefully chosen and always at your service. At first you could not help liking it, but later on you hated it, and just because of his too clear enunciation, of this string of ever-ready words. You somehow could not help feeling that he must have a sort of peculiarly shaped tongue in his head, a sort of unusually long and thin one, very red and with an exceedingly sharp and incessantly and uncontrollably active tip.
Well, this was the young man who now flew into the drawing room, and, honestly, I still believe that he began talking in the next room and that he came in talking…
Isn’t that extraordinary? Vivid? Fascinating? No? Oh well, like I say, we’re all accustomed these days to so much less by way of introduction, this penetrating descriptive loveliness probably seems, to modern readers, like dull exposition.
Anyway moving on, from fiction to non-fiction, here is a little random list of apophthegms from great writers that, again, you’d be hard-pressed to find the equal of if you searched through ten-thousand well-reviewed essays or books on society or psychology today. No unifying theme here, rather a random bag to finish the year on. Well, randomish;
Men fight for liberty and win it with hard knocks. Their children, brought up easy, let it slip away again, poor fools. And their grandchildren are once more slaves.
…you chose your jobs because they promised to provide you with a steady income and leisure to render the Goddess whom you adore valuable part-time service. Who am I, you will ask, to warn you that she demands either whole-time service or none at all?
The amount of genuine leisure available in a society is generally in inverse proportion to the amount of labour-saving machinery it employs.
With fame I become more and more stupid, which, of course, is a very common phenomenon.
That is why most men discover when they look back on their life that they have the whole time been living ad interim, and are surprised to see that which they let go by so unregarded and unenjoyed was precisely their life, was precisely that in expectation of which they lived.
Almost all our failings are more pardonable than the means we employ to hide them.
Maxims La Rouchefoucauld
Wisdom seems to the rabble a kind of escape, a means and trick for getting well out of a wicked game.
You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.
G. K. Chesterton
It is almost as if the decline of the idea of eternity coincided with the increasing aversion to sustained effort.
Every situation is distinguished by its uniqueness, and there is always only one right answer to the problem posed by the situation at hand.
Viktor E Frankl
People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have the things about us.
There resides infinitely more good in the demonic than in the trivial man.
The beast that bears you fastest to perfection is suffering.
The merit of originality is not novelty; it is sincerity.
It is only our conception of time that makes us call the last judgement by that name; in fact it is a permanent court-martial.
The entire universe, possibly, is in the invisible process of turning into the lord.
Philip K. Dick
Yes, love is a real magician. One has only to love, and what one loves becomes beautiful.