Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Benjamin Constant

In The Last Attachment, Iris Origo tells of Lord Byron sending his mistress Teresa Guiccioli a copy of Benjamin Constant's novel Adolphe. The novel purports to be the history of a young man who seduces a woman from idle vanity, then finds her on his hands; he will not, from a sense of obligation, renounce her, but he cannot be wholeheartedly committed to her, and both live unhappily. To Guiccioli this sounded uncomfortably like the relation existing between Byron and her, and the neutral reader will agree.

A Folio paperback including Adolphe turned up at Carpe Librum a while ago, and I bought it. I can understand Teresa Guiccioli's distress. Byron spoke of it, in the letter accompanying the volume, as "well written and only too true." I am no judge of French prose; I did find it terribly plausible.

The volume included also Le Cahier Rouge, a memoir of Constant's youthand Cécile, a roman-à-clef concerning Constant's efforts to break away from Madame de Stäel and take up with Charlotte von Hardenberg. The memoir was mildly interesting, most of the interest lying in the demonstration of what unreliable and distractable oafs many young men are. About halfway through Cécile, though, I found myself wondering why I kept on reading it. Mme. de Stäel is of interest through her writings, and Constant through his. But as protagonists, they don't really sustain a roman-à-clef. Maybe I had to get the full $1.06 worth from my purchase.

Shortly before reading Cécile, I had seen a quotation from Metternich, "The French are the people of intelligence. Intelligence runs the streets; but behind it is no character, no principle, and no will; they run after everything, can be managed through vanity, and like children must always have a toy." One might think that Metternich had Cécile in mind, but the manuscript was not found and published until the middle of the twentieth century. Is it fair to think of think of Benjamin Constant, born Swiss, as French?

Monday, July 11, 2016

Noticed in Kant

Noticed this weekend in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Chapter 1:
Power, wealth, honour, even health and that complete well-being and contentment with one's state which goes by the name of 'happiness' produce boldness, and as a consequence often over-boldness as well, unless a good will is present by which their influence on the mind--and so too the whole principle of action--may be corrected and adjusted to universal ends; not to mention that a rational and impartial spectator can never feel approval in contemplating the uninterrupted prosperity of a being graced by no touch of a pure and good will, and that consequently a good will seems to constitute the indispensable condition of our very worthiness to be happy.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Street Art

Some weeks ago, the hood of car appeared along 16th St. NW just south of the bridge over Piney Branch Parkway. How it got there, whether from a wreck just there, or fallen from transport, I don't know. It stood, downside out, along the fence that blocks off Rock Creek Park.

A couple of weeks ago, somebody decided to use the hood as a canvas:

Who is Cristina Maria? Model, artist, or both? Is this a memorial? It is not clear that there was an accident just here, let alone one that cost a life.

I wonder how long the hood will be there. It has been there for about six weeks, I think, and I don't see any reason it shouldn't be there longer. It is possible that the city regards this as the National Park Service's problem, and that the National Park Service doesn't know about it--the fence is on the very edge of Rock Creek Park, up a steep and wooded hill from Piney Branch Parkway.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Germans and Greeks

Well along in the second volume of Egon Friedell's Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit, there appears a closely reasoned fifty-page section, "The Invention of Antiquity". Summarized, the thesis is that 18th-Century Europe invented a Greek past to suit the needs it felt with the exhaustion of the baroque era; and that it did so by thoroughly misunderstanding ancient Greece. Twenty or fewer pages would have sufficed to trace the origin, errors, and consequences of the invention. But Friedell seems to have suffered from the infection he diagnosed, and to have been unable to let go of the Greeks once he had taken them up.

He is biting on the etiology of the invention:
And we know today where the aesthetics and conception of history of the German classicists had its origin: from the teaching and example of the generation that brought it forth, a generation of physically and spiritually undernourished teachers, stooped bookworms and crook-backed art pedants, out of the dusty confines of libraries and writing rooms, the dusky close air of provincial streets, the tedium of the crooked and curled miniature world of the German baroque. Today we feel this world, not antiquity, as historical: in its old worm-eaten feeling, its smell of wood plaster and train-oil lamps, the anemia from bad feeding, its touching and bizarre concern to give itself depth and gravity through stiff pedantry, heaped up proper nouns, and book titles.

Poor Winkelmann, earlier called "the disastrous founder of German plaster of Paris classicism," gets several pages partly of praise but mostly not.

Friedell writes that "If one were not perfectly well aware that the gymnasium students understand not a word of the Greek writers, one would not only have to remove their works from the curriculum, but also privately forbid it as thoroughly immoral." He illustrates the immorality and amorality of the Greeks amply, but it is hard to take what he says about the students literally. The pages he gives to Greek musicality and the Greek language suggest that he understood more than a few words. So, for example,
An eminent, indeed unique musicality expresses itself in the Greek language: in its liveliness and subtlety, power of modulation and it melody, color and fullness, force and flexibility, and not least (what one in a certain sense can also regard as a musical element, for the world of melody is immediately intelligible to everyone) in its pure popularity. Greek, although it first raised the highest scientific and philosophical problems, possesses almost no loan words, and likewise has a mysterious ability to make the abstract always plastic, to express the purest concepts tangibly, to occupy itself in the fullest Platonic sense with the seen idea. In addition it has an unusual richness of forms, not a few of them unique to it, as the optative mood, the aorist tense, the doubled adverb, the middle voice, the dual; particularly the last two are of astonishing subtlety: for what one does for oneself is as sharply distinguished from what one does for another as from what another does to one; and what one does as a pair bears an different character for what one does with more or does alone. It is possible that the great role that the erotic played in Greek life might have been determinant for this cultivation, which runs through all tints and shades. And the language gained a simultaneous coordination and nuance, firmness and mood, enabled by the unsurpassed quantity of particles, as well as an indefinable element of playful, floating irony. Certainly these delicate tints of expression cannot be translated, unless through the finest reflection and most sensitive feeling for language; the garden variety philologist's translations into German, which satisfies itself to render all parts of speech literally, and as far as possible clumsily and old-fashioned, in messes such as "Troth! Thou might herein now have some reason", fail entirely.
That the Greeks actually regarded language as a musical phenomenon is attested in their remarkable sensitivity to false expressions, emphases or word orders, which is conveyed in numerous stories, and finds an analogy only in the sharp ear of the Italian public for bad singing. And this was really the secret of the Greek "style": they were educated by centuries-long organized hearing and seeing to the highest receptivity and capacity for distinctions.
John Jay Chapman made comparable remarks (allowing always for the differences between New England and Central Europe) in "Greek as a Pleasure", collected in Memories and Milestones:
In the time of the Greek tragedians noun and verb and adjective and conjunction, as we know them, existed not. Greek adjectives are half nouns, pronouns are voices, and might easily be called so; propositions are moody, bat-like things, and ought probably to be called moods. The verbs turn into nouns upon the slightest provocation, and the case-endings attract and eat each other up with whimsical facility. All is done for the sentiment of the ear, noting for rule, all is governed by a supergrammatical instinct, which the modern mind can neither practice nor understand. All the words in Greek take their meanings from each other to an extent not easily conceivable. Their wings are in motion like butterflies that will nto alight. The air is full of the petals of particles for which we have no modern equivalents and which yet flutter and wheel with an inner poetry and an inimitable logic of their own. We were men before we were scholars, and therefore these things affect us like music.
But back in the Kulturgeschichte Winkelmann is dead in Trieste, the classical fashion has spread to France and Britain, and Friedell is about to move on to revolution and empire. Perhaps I will take a break for the weekend of the Fourth.

Thursday, June 30, 2016


Seen about the middle of June in front of the Masonic Temple on 16th St. NW between S and Riggs:

I think this is a European linden, but it could be one of that linden's American cousins. By now the flowers have dried up and mostly fallen off, and the fruit has appeared. It occurs to me that this is something of a European block as far as the trees go: the other trees in front of the temple are English oaks.

Monday, June 27, 2016

This Intolerable Deal of Sack

Having looked into Utopia in Power: The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present (published in 1986), I found the results of inquiry into alcohol consumption in Lithuania during the 1970s:
The average resident of this region (note that Lithuania is one of the most culturally advanced republics of the USSR) spent 330 rubles on vodka and 3 rubles on books.
That is not quite as bad as Falstaff's ratio of expenditure for sack and bread, which is something greater than 136 to 1, yet it is impressive. But a friend who spent some time in the Soviet Union during its late days offers some context: a ruble would buy an art book, 35 kopecks a hardback novel. Given that Utopia in Power reports a 28.5 liter per capita consumption of vodka at that time, one can say that a liter of vodka cost about 11 rubles, roughly 30 times the price of a novel. My most recent purchase of a hardback novel was for about $19. I have never contemplated the retail purchase of a bottle of an alcoholic beverage costing even four times that, let alone thirty times.

Still, do any of us but teetotalers manage a ratio weighted to the book side?  I doubt that the general population of the US does. Alcohol is heavily taxed, and books take time to read. The Census figures are not quite clear, but it appears that in 2014 wine, beer, and liquor stores had sales of about $34 billion, book stores had about $9 billion.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Big Red One

This week I noticed a bed of flowers laid out in a big red "1"

 just south of the 1st Division monument:

The red numeral is the insignia of the US Army's 1st Infantry Division, which therefore is known as "the Big Red One". The monument base names battles fought in WW I, the war to end all wars: the campaigns of WW II are on a smaller slab of granite off to the west.

I had never seen the flowers. A guard told me that indeed they are planted every year. I neglected to ask, and don't know whether they arrive for the anniversary of D Day--the 1st Division landed at Omaha Beach--or for the birthday of the US Army (June 14), or simply when such flowers bloom.