Saturday, June 30, 2018

Simply an Evil

Noticed the other day in the letters of Pliny the Younger, describing the ways of his uncle:
Often after his meal--which he took in the old fashion, during the day, light, and simple--if it was summer and he was at leisure, he lay in the sun, reading a book, annotating it and taking excerpts. For he took excerpts from everything he read: he used to say that a book was simply an evil if nothing came of it.
I have fallen out of the habit of writing into a notebook excerpts from what I read. This may have happened when I started blogging. I do annotate books. In the more daunting this is the equivalent of dropping pebbles to find my way back; in others there may be references to other books, or to other pages in the same book. Certainly there are books that are simply wastes of time; but there are others that are not, and for which I could hardly tell you what came of the reading.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Its Second Childhood

Remembered and then looked up in Pictures from an Institution,  near the end of Part V, "Gertrude and Sydney":
The demands American education could not meet--that it give a continent a college education--had forced this portion of it into regression: Benton was in its second childhood. it had sloughed off the awful protean burden of Magdalenian caves and Patmos and palm-leaf scriptures from Ceylon; of exiles' letters from Thrace or the banks of the Danube; of soldiers' letters from the Wall--the Roman Wall, the Chinese Wall. Benton did not see that it is we who ride upon Proteus, and that without him our journey is weary and our way unfriended. So, most of their burden flung off, the people of Benton went light and refreshed on their way, their broad smooth concrete Way; and when, soon, their legs got tired, they said to one another that it is the destiny of man to get tired.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018


Letters, for example, are an interesting transitional phenomenon,: a kind of written conversation that, as it were, stretches out the movement of talking at cross purposes before seeing each other's point. The art of writing letters consists in not letting what one says become a treatise on the subject, but making it acceptable to the correspondent. but it also consists, on the other hand, in preserving and fulfilling the measure of finality possessed by everything state in writing. The time lapse between sending a letter and receiving an answer is not just an external factor, but gives to this form of communication its proper nature as a particular form of writing. So we note that the speeding-up of the post has not led to a heightening of this form of communication but, on the contrary, to a decline in the art of letter-writing.
   Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, Second Part, II, 3(i) "The model of the Platonic dialectic"

Is that so? The speeding up of the post took place in part through the development of railroads, which made it possible for visits to replace some letters. Then of course by the early 20th Century there was the telephone, which enabled one to talk at cross purposes in real time.


Saturday, June 9, 2018

Oh, Dear

Noticed, with some surprise, in the chapter "Training for Russia" of George Kennan's Memoirs 1925-1950:
This episode [of a warning ignored before US recognition of the USSR] has remained in my mind as the first of many lessons I was destined to receive, in the course of a diplomatic career, on one of the most consistent and incurable traits of American statesmanship--namely, its neurotic self-consciousness and introversion, the tendency to make statements and take actions with regard not to  their effect on the international scene to which they are ostensibly addressed but rather to their effect on those echelons of American opinion, congressional opinion first and foremost, to which the respective statesmen are anxious to appeal. The question, in these circumstances, became not: how effective is what I am doing in terms of the impact it makes on our world environment? but rather: how do I look, in the mirror of domestic American opinion, as I do it? Do I look shrewd, determined, defiantly patriotic, imbued with the necessary vigilance before the wiles of foreign governments? If so, this is what I do, even though it may prove meaningless, or even counterproductive, when applied to the realities of the external situation.
Congressional opinion now seems to respond chiefly to public opinion, at least the inferred opinion of those who are likely to vote in primaries, and so I think no longer counts as "first and foremost". I suppose it is well to be reminded that posing is nothing new.

Friday, June 8, 2018

College Recruiting

In George Kennan's Memoirs 1925-1950, chapter "A Personal Note", a paragraph reads
I came to Princeton directly from St. John's Military Academy. The progression was not a usual one. I owed it partly to the excitement and sense of revelation derived from reading Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise in my senior year at school, and partly to the help and encouragement of the St. John's dean, the late Henry Holt, a modest, shrewd, and dedicated pedagogue.
In On the Decay of Criticism: The Complete Essays of W.M. Spackman, in "A Conversation with W.M. Spackman" there appears
Interviewer: Was Princeton your first choice for college?

Spackman: No, I was going to Cornell. But then I read This Side of Paradise--we all did then--and began to rethink my choice. Of my class of probably a dozen boys, one went to Harvard, one went to M.I.T., and six of us came up here. But look at this, two-thirds of the class go to the top universities! That was the kind of education we got in those days.

Interviewer: I have read that Fitzgerald's novel had that kind of influence. It's hard now to imagine--
Kennan graduated from Princeton with the Class of 1925, Spackman with the class of 1927. It is clear from what they write that Spackman a better time in college, not surprisingly: he was nearer home, he almost certainly had more money, and I infer that he had a generally more cheerful disposition. By the early 1950s, both were back in Princeton, Kennan at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Spackman as an independent writer.

It seems to me that I read This Side of Paradise while I was in high school, though I can give no account of the book now. It certainly did not occur to me that I might or ought to attend Princeton. A fellow a year ahead of me might have read the novel and found inspiration: he was admitted to Princeton, but for the following year, and spent his gap year working. At any rate, few in my class went very far away from Denver, and the famous novel about Colorado State or Creighton is yet to be written.

Are there now books that make students change their college choices? I suppose there might be. On the other hand, the high school student of today is often considerably more emancipated--or, if you will, unsupervised and undisciplined--than the high school student of 1920. It may be harder to create excitement about college.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Jill Ker Conway, RIP

The newspapers this week carried obituaries of Jill Ker Conway, sometime president of Smith College. She wrote an excellent memoir of her childhood and youth in Australia, The Road from Coorain. I don't know that it stood up to a second reading as well as it did to the first. On the other hand, only so many memoirs invite a second reading, and The Road from Coorain certainly did. If you haven't heard of her or the book, you might do well to find and read it.