The Plain Speaker

September 17, 2011

Drifted into the library late, with only a couple of hours left before it closed, too late to start on anything serious, or engage with any of those long-term projects that never get done. Needed something to read for two and a bit hours, on a slightly dull-witted, rainy afternoon. Sometimes I scratch around in these situations, plucking various titles from various shelves, and flicking through them in a desultory and unrewarding fashion before giving it all up as a bad job and skulking off to the pub. Today, however, I knew exactly which shelf to go to.

I took down The Plain Speaker, because I hadn’t delved into it before. I’m not going to go on about how he’s one of the best prose writers in English, and how his voice of compassion and reason – in that order – is as clear and honest as a church bell heard in the silence of a summer’s morning.

And although I found reading him today continually remarkable, as I always do, I just wanted to pick out two quotes where the pitch of my interest changed its note to one of sublime intensity, such as is more normally encountered when reading a poem that is revealing its greatness to you for the first time.

The first is from his essay On Dreams:

It should appear that I have never been in love, for the same reason. I never dream of the face of any one I am particularly attached to. I have thought almost to agony of the same person for years, nearly without ceasing, so as to have her face always before me, and to be haunted by a perpetual consciousness of disappointed passion, and yet I never in all that time dreamt of this person more than once or twice, and then not vividly. I conceive, therefore, that this perseverance of the imagination in a fruitless track must have been owing to mortified pride, to an intense desire and hope of good in the abstract, more than to love, which I consider as an individual and involuntary passion, and which therefore, when it is strong, must predominate over the fancy in sleep. I think myself into love, and dream myself out of it.

The second isn’t Hazlitt at all, but is a quotation from the memoirs of slavery abolitionist Granville Sharp, contained in Hazlitt’s remarkable anti-utilitarian essay Of Reason and the Imagination:

There was an example of eloquent moral reasoning connected with this subject, given in the work just referred to, which was not the less solid and profound, because it was produced by a burst of strong personal and momentary feeling. It is what follows:— “The name of a person having been mentioned in the presence of Naimbanna (a young African chieftain), who was understood by him to have publicly asserted something very degrading to the general character of Africans, he broke out into violent and vindictive language. He was immediately reminded of the Christian duty of forgiving his enemies; upon which he answered nearly in the following words:—’If a man should rob me of my money, I can forgive him; if a man should shoot at me, or try to stab me, I can forgive him; if a man should sell me and all my family to a slave-ship, so that we should pass all the rest of our days in slavery in the West Indies, I can forgive him; but’ (added he, rising from his seat with much emotion) ‘if a man takes away the character of the people of my country, I never can forgive him.’ Being asked why he would not extend his forgiveness to those who took away the character of the people of his country, he answered: ‘If a man should try to kill me, or should sell me and my family for slaves, he would do an injury to as many as he might kill or sell; but if any one takes away the character of Black people, that man injures Black people all over the world; and when he has once taken away their character, there is nothing which he may not do to Black people ever after. That man, for instance, will beat Black men, and say, Oh, it is only a Black man, why should not I beat him? That man will make slaves of Black people; for, when he has taken away their character, he will say, Oh, they are only Black people, why should not I make them slaves? That man will take away all the people of Africa if he can catch them; and if you ask him, But why do you take away all these people? he will say, Oh! they are only Black peoplethey are not like White peoplewhy should I not take them? That is the reason why I cannot forgive the man who takes away the character of the people of my country.'”—Memoirs Of Granville Sharp, p. 369.

But the entire essay is filled with things as stirring, such as when Hazlitt calls fools those who believe ‘their own shallow dogmas settle all questions best without any farther appeal’. Or when he says:

So with respect to the atrocities committed in the Slave-Trade, it could not be set up as a doubtful plea in their favour, that the actual and intolerable sufferings inflicted on the individuals were compensated by certain advantages in a commercial and political point of view—in a moral sense they cannot be compensated. They hurt the public mind: they harden and sear the natural feelings. The evil is monstrous and palpable; the pretended good is remote and contingent.

And although our current government does not directly sanction anything as grotesquely revolting as the African slave trade, Hazlitt’s description of the brutalisation of the public mind when it is asked to accept suffering for commercial or political advantage felt, as I read, like a barb aimed directly at the heart of Britain today.

A Rosicrucian Ramble

September 9, 2011

There sometimes seems to be a kerfuffle about ‘real’ identities on the internet. Google seem keen on it. You can always find an article or two suggesting that people would be better behaved if they used their irl identities, whatever they may be. But reading today about Rosicrucian & anti-Rosicrucian pamphleteering in the early 17th century reminded me afresh how much publishing of any sort has always been enmeshed with the shadow world of non or pseudo identities.

I wouldn’t want to give up the anonymous work of 1623 entitled Horrible Pacts made between the Devil and the Pretended Invisible Ones, in the name of bogus ‘authority’.

And frankly, excerpts like the following from Frances Yates’ The Rosicrucian Enlightenment get me really hot:

Theophilus Schweighardt published in 1618, with no name of place of publication or printer, a work with the following title: Speculum sophicum Rhodo-Stauroticum, Das ist: Weilauffige Entdeckung des Collegii und axiomatum von sondern erleuchten Fraternitet Christi-Rosen Creutz. This is a typical example of a Rosicrucian title, with its mixture of Latin and German. In this work Theophilus Schweighardt, who may be one Daniel Mögling, or may be the same as ‘Florentinus de Valentia’, who may be Andreae himself, is enthusiastic about the ‘Pansophia’ of the Brotherhood and their threefold activities, which he classifies as (1) divinely magical (2) physical or ‘chymical’, and (3) ‘Tertriune’ or religious and Catholic.

While I’m on Rosicrucians – the combination of them being required to heal the sick for free, and their red cross symbol made me wonder if this was where the Red Cross got its symbol from. Their webpage assures me that it’s an inversion of the Swiss flag, thus referencing their neutrality and the Geneva convention but I think I prefer my theory.

Despite its tendentiousness and the occasional whiff of the hobby horse there’s all sorts of good stuff in Yates’ book – Descartes showing himself to his friends in Paris to assure them he was not one of the invisible Rosicrucians (although his travels and indeed life are weirdly cognate with the trail of that phantom organisation – in fact I started dozing off and hazily imagined him on a mystical search across Europe for the secret of Thomas Hariot’s algebra…)

Then there’s this dizzying sentence:

The ‘Rosicrucian furore’ which arose in response to the stirring announcements of the manifestos soon became inextricably confused through the large numbers who tried to join in without inside knowledge of what it was all about, being merely attracted by the exciting possibility of getting in touch with mysterious personages possessing superior knowledge or powers, or angered and alarmed by the imagined spread of dangerous magicians or agitators.

A non-existent organisation, a ludic dream-fantasy of the Reformation, a ghostly reflection of Ignatius Loyola’s Jesuit shock troops, present only in publishing history, exists in its most concrete form in people who knew nothing about ‘what it was all about’? Those closest to the centre, the Paracelsist physicians Robert Fludd (from Bearstead, Kent – go Bearstead!) and Michael Maier regularly sending out pleas for this organisation to reveal itself, the ‘inside knowledge’ to which they were privy an allegorical structure of alchemical and mathematical mystical symbols? Madness, I tell you, madness:

The Invisible College of the Rose Cross Fraternity (from the Speculum Sophicum Rhodo-Stauroticum)


September 4, 2011

I had never seen this before (courtesy Samuel Beckett’s Only Cinematic Project: A Silent Film from 1965 | Brain Pickings and Ready, Steady, Book):

Buster Keaton in Samuel Beckett’s 1965 Film. It’s wonderful.

Good things:

An old Buster Keaton is still, through a combination of his hat and locomotion, still recognisably Buster Keaton, but with strong elements of decay and therefore tragedy about his floppy athleticism.

The way that light, and lines of sight become the physical objects negotiated by physical comedy and slapstick. Very like Molloy. What was once the obstacle course of a rail handcar or construction site with its pulleys and planks is translated into an invisible and abstract environment.

The atmosphere of terror, with numerous perhaps rather surprising baroque, or Victorian ghost story elements: the grotesque head-carving on the chair, the stalking camera, the briefly-seen back of Keaton hurrying up the stairs.

The more minimalist elements of same, the terror constructed out of observation, death and identity. I’m sure there are all sorts of film and camera theorists who can elucidate this endlessly, but on a simple level – camera as self, camera as death. The deadly reflection that this engenders.

[edit:] I should have said here, I think, ‘The combination of baroque or literary stimuluses to fear with the elements that make up existential fear”. I think this is what gives the film a good deal of its character and force.

The elements characteristic of his novels – the choreography of the main character, very like Murphy, or Watt. The rocking chair, such a central object in Murphy: the only thing that gets faster and faster and then stops, if I remember the book correctly.

The classic silent film comedy of the cat and dog. The dog!

The way the minimal structure and expression allows all sorts of clear, unobstructed symbols to be present without being cluttered; to take one: the death of the vicar/priest figure compared to the destruction of the Egyptian idol.

The broken landscape.

What a Sunday morning treat.