Brain Pickings

Art and Accidental Literature: Lynda Barry + Lord Chesterfield

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One of yesteryear’s greatest literary icons, under one of today’s greatest artists.

Reconstructionist Lynda Barry is among my favorite artists, so every once in a while I save up a bit of lunch money and buy one of her gorgeous originals. Barry frequently paints over old book pages — like, for instance, this watercolor over Freud’s essay on creative writing and daydreaming — which results in a doubly delightful treat of beautiful art and accidental “found literature.” When my latest painting arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to see the charming watercolor dog (another soft spot) was painted over an essay by celebrated 19th-century French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, prefacing Lord Chesterfield’s Letters, Sentences and Maxims (public library; public domain) — the same gem that gave us his fatherly advice on the art of pleasing and the art of dressing well.

Watercolor by Lynda Barry from my personal collection

Sainte-Beuve writes:

Each epoch has produced its treatise intended for the formation of the polite man, the man of the world, the courtier, when men only lived for courts, and the accomplished gentleman. In these various treatises on knowledge of life and politeness, if opened after a lapse of ages, we at once see portions which are as antiquated as the cut and fashion of our forefathers’ coats; the model has evidently changed. But looking into it carefully as a whole, if the book has been written by a sensible man with a true knowledge of mankind, we shall find profit in studying these models which have been placed before preceding generations. The letters that Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son, and which contain a whole school of savoir vivre and worldly science, are interesting in this particular, that there has been no idea of forming a model for imitation, but they are simply intended to bring up a pupil in the closest intimacy. They are confidential letters, which, suddenly produced in the light of day, have betrayed all the secrets and ingenious artifices of paternal solicitude. If, in reading them nowadays, we are struck with the excessive importance attached to accidental and promiscuous circumstances, with pure details of costume, we are not less struck with the durable part, with that which belongs to human observation in all ages; and this last part is much more considerable than at a superficial glance would be imagined. In applying himself to the formation of his son as a polite man in society, Lord Chesterfield has not given us a treatise on duty, as Cicero has; but he has left letters which, by their mixture of justness and lightness, by certain lightsome airs which insensibly mingle with the serious graces, preserve the medium between the “Mémoires of the Chevalier de Grammont” and “Télémaque.”

Portrait by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click for details.

The complete essay was eventually included in the anthology The World’s Best Essays: From the Earliest Period to the Present Time, Volume 9 under the title “A Typical Man of the World.” Pair it with this contemporary meditation on what makes a great essay, then treat yourself to some of Barry’s superb books and art.

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