Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘literature’

21 NOVEMBER, 2013

Voltaire on the Perils of Censorship, the Freedom of the Press, and the Rewards of Reading

By:

“The man of taste will read only what is good; but the statesman will permit both bad and good.”

Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778) is one of the most revered and quotable writers in literary history, credited with pioneering “social networking” with his Republic of Letters — the remarkable epistolary mesh of correspondence between him and some of his era’s greatest intellectuals on both sides of the English Channel and beyond. But more than a mere participant in literary culture, Voltaire was also its vocal proponent, unflinching custodian, and tireless crusader for its highest ideals. In a poignant and pointed 1733 letter to a high-ranking government commissioner, found in the volume Voltaire in His Letters: Being a Selection From His Correspondence (public library; public domain) by biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall who wrote under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre, Voltaire bemoans the extreme censorship of the press in 18th-century France. Making a brilliant addition to famous authors’ revolt against censorship and eloquently extolling the rewards of reading, he writes:

As you have it in your power, sir, to do some service to letters, I implore you not to clip the wings of our writers so closely, nor to turn into barn-door fowls those who, allowed a start, might become eagles; reasonable liberty permits the mind to soar — slavery makes it creep.

Had there been a literary censorship in Rome, we should have had to-day neither Horace, Juvenal, nor the philosophical works of Cicero. If Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Locke had not been free, England would have had neither poets nor philosophers; there is something positively Turkish in proscribing printing; and hampering it is proscription. Be content with severely repressing diffamatory libels, for they are crimes: but so long as those infamous calottes are boldly published, and so many other unworthy and despicable productions, at least allow Bayle to circulate in France, and do not put him, who has been so great an honour to his country, among its contraband.

You say that the magistrates who regulate the literary custom-house complain that there are too many books. That is just the same thing as if the provost of merchants complained there were too many provisions in Paris. People buy what they choose. A great library is like the City of Paris, in which there are about eight hundred thousand persons: you do not live with the whole crowd: you choose a certain society, and change it. So with books: you choose a few friends out of the many. There will be seven or eight thousand controversial books, and fifteen or sixteen thousand novels, which you will not read: a heap of pamphlets, which you will throw into the fire after you have read them. The man of taste will read only what is good; but the statesman will permit both bad and good.

He then goes on to make an economic case against censorship, arguing that even the most meritless of literature should be allowed to exist for its economic and social value, whatever our moral judgment of it may be — an argument that could apply perfectly, depending on one’s disposition, to the Buzzfeeds and Huffington Posts of our time:

Men’s thoughts have become an important article of commerce. The Dutch publishers make a million [francs] a year, because Frenchmen have brains. A feeble novel is, I know, among books what a fool, always striving after wit, is in the world. We laugh at him and tolerate him. Such a novel brings the means of life to the author who wrote it, the publisher who sells it, to the moulder, the printer, the paper-maker, the binder, the carrier — and finally to the bad wine-shop where they all take their money. Further, the book amuses for an hour or two a few women who like novelty in literature as in everything. Thus, despicable though it may be, it will have produced two important things — profit and pleasure.

A year after Voltaire penned this missive, his own Letters on the English were publicly burned and he was compelled to flee the capital. But, as Hall writes, “the system, of course, entirely defeated its own ends. The hangman’s fire blazed into notoriety the very works it sought to destroy: while the secret printing of the scurrilous and the indecent was ubiquitous.”

Four decades later, writing to Rousseau in 1775 to discuss the perils of plagiarism, Voltaire revisits the subject of literature’s battles with his singular gift for separating the petty from the profound:

What matter to humankind that a few drones steal the honey of a few bees? Literary men make a great fuss of their petty quarrels: the rest of the world ignores them, or laughs at them.

They are, perhaps, the least serious of all the ills attendant on human life. The thorns inseparable from literature and a modest degree of fame are flowers in comparison with the other evils which from all time have flooded the world. Neither Cicero, Varron, Lucretius, Virgil, or Horace had any part in the proscriptions of Marius, Scylla, that profligate Antony, or that fool Lepidus; while as for that cowardly tyrants, Octavius Caesar — servilely entitled Augustus — he only became an assassin when he was deprived of the society of men of letters.

[…]

If anyone has a right to complain of letters, I am that person, for in all times and in all places they have led to my being persecuted: still, we must needs love them in spite of the way they are abused — as we cling to society, though the wicked spoil its pleasantness. . .

More of Voltaire’s timeless wisdom and unwavering convictions can be found in Letters on the English, which is also available as a free download.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

19 NOVEMBER, 2013

Europe, America, Utopia: Calvino on Hemingway

By:

“In Hemingway one finds almost all of what was meant by America.”

“I continue to maintain that I have never loved any writer as much as Hemingway, even though his character can be vulgarized,” Italo Calvino wrote in one of his letters in 1964. In another letter, he pointed to Hemingway as the author who most influenced his own early work. In fact, the evolution of his relationship with Hemingway reveals a great deal about both writers and, beyond that, about some of the most central concerns in twentieth-century literature and in the writerly soul in general.

Calvino believed that the Russian-American engendered the “communistization” of Italian intellectuals in the avant-garde, and the dissolution of that alliance during the Cold War affected Italian culture just as profoundly. In a 1950 letter to the literary critic Mario Motta, found in Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985 (public library) — which also gave us his thoughts on writing, America, abortion and the meaning of life, and his poetic resume — 27-year-old Calvino wrote that Russia and America, more than actual countries or political ideologies, functioned as placeholders for “a collection of Italian data and aspirations” and were “two utopian countries, two incomplete and complementary utopias,” the sum of which added up to what many intellectuals considered the true objective of the Italian Resistance. But it was Hemingway whom Calvino saw as the anchor of the American part of the equation. In the same letter, Calvino considers writing an article about Hemingway and cracks open his conflicted thought process:

In [Hemingway] one finds almost all of what was meant by America. The virginity of its history, its technique (knowing how to do things), freedom and fullness of love, the open air, a direct democracy in human relations, courage. And, as writing, one finds in it the maximum help for developing one’s technique: H.’s language is technical and functional, in which there is nothing that is without immediate, rational utilization, there is no abstraction, solipsism or fanciness (as had previously been the case in the great but obscure Faulkner). But H. is an “America” that fails to find its “Russia.” It finds instead (and the problem is it goes looking for it) its “Europe.” This is H.’s decadentism. And he finds it on the basis (and as a diversion and explanation) of the elements from the worst side of America (which is as real as the other side) that are in him: alcoholism, ignorance, emptiness. And, as a barbarian, he has highly refined intuitions regarding European barbarism-civilization; he enters the Olympus of our most refined irrationalism, he the “technical” writer: but what is that to us now? We could have sent any old Montherlant to see bullfights. It was something else we wanted from him, something else now that what comes back more and more to our eyes — to the point of covering the aspects we sought and loved in him and still seek and love in him — now that what comes back, as I was saying, are the other aspects. . . These matter to us less and less now, so it is something else, then, something that is now beyond him… beyond him (where?) that we are looking for now. As you can see, these are very difficult ideas to express. And note that these things came to my mind as I was writing, and every time I’ve begun writing about this damned man what came to mind were different things, and certainly when I come to write this article I’ll write things that are different again, and now I need to keep the rough copy of this letter otherwise I’ll forget everything.

In another letter to Motta a month later, Calvino revisits the subject of Hemingway:

Hemingway — notwithstanding (or rather precisely because of) the fundamental American emptiness that he notices all around him and of which he too is a part — Hemingway who feels the need to go back to the basic relationships of man with things: fishing well, lighting fires well, establishing relations between a man and a woman well, and between men and other men, blowing up bridges well (except that he lacks the general perspective, and becomes futile and gets bored; what do bull-fights matter to us, even when well done?)

Four years later, at age 31, Calvino formulated and formalized his thoughts on Hemingway in the essay “Hemingway e noi” (“Hemingway and Ourselves,”) found in the anthology Why Read the Classics?, which also gave us his 14 timeless definitions of what makes a classic.

For a first-hand impression of Hemingway’s literary convictions, see his thoughts on writing and the dangers of ego, his advice to aspiring writers, his short, somewhat embittered Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and his young self’s irreverent ideas of heaven and hell.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

15 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Geography of Great Literature, in Hand-Lettered Typography

By:

Twain, Didion, Thoreau, White, McCarthy, Eugenides.

HAPPY UPDATE: All the artwork is now available as gorgeous prints on Society6, with 100% of the proceeds benefiting A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists.

In a recent collaboration with Debbie Millman for Print magazine’s Regional Design Annual, I selected a beloved literary quotation representing each of the six regions represented and Debbie illustrated the passages in the signature style of her magnificent visual essays and poems. These typographic gems — a sort of modern-day booklovers’ map of literary geography — are presented here for the first time digitally, and include a Brain Pickings exclusive: A special quotation for New York from one of my 10 all-time favorite books on NYC.

For the East, Henry David Thoreausage of true success and children’s book hero — in Walden:

For the Far West, Joan Didion in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (which also gave us her timeless wisdom on self-respect and keeping a notebook):

For the Midwest, Jeffrey Eugenides in Middlesex:

For the Southwest, Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian:

For the South, Mark Twainadviser of little girls, “the Lincoln of literature,” feisty critic of the press — in Life on the Mississippi:

For New York, the one and only E. B. White — extraordinary essayist, heartfelt dog-lover, celebrator of New York, tireless champion of integrity, upholder of linguistic style — in the indispensable Here Is New York:

For more enchantment by this Millmanian magic, devour Self-Portrait as Your Traitor: Visual Essays by Debbie Millman, then grab prints of this artwork on Society6.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

14 NOVEMBER, 2013

Moleskine Celebrates 100 Years of Swann’s Way: Illustrated Portraits of Ira Glass, Rick Moody, and Others Reading Proust

By:

In search of lost time in pen and ink.

“Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life,” Marcel Proust wrote in Swann’s Way (public library; free ebook) — the first volume of his legendary magnum opus In Search of Lost Time — published on November 14, 1913. A city-wide “nomadic reading” by the French Embassy in New York is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Swann’s Way with appearances by such beloved luminaries as This American Life’s Ira Glass, author Rick Moody, Paris Review editor Lorin Stein, and NYPL’s Paul Holdengräber, and the fine folks at Moleskine, who brought us the wonderful Moleskine Detour, invited students and alumni from the Illustration as Visual Essay MFA program at the School of Visual Arts to live-illustrate each of the readings — a pairing particularly apt given Proust himself was a semi-secret illustrator.

Proust Nomadic Reading, sketch by Cun Shi

Marcel Proust by Mark Bischel

Here are some favorites from the live series:

Ira Glass reads Proust, sketch by Maelle Doliveux

Ira Glass reads Proust, sketch by Carol Fabricatore

Rick Moody reads Proust, sketch by Lauren Simkin Berke

Dominique Ansel reads Proust's 'The Cookie,' sketch by Jade Shulz

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory — this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

McNally-Jackson owner Sarah McNally reads Proust, sketch by Maelle Doliveux

Ron Chernow reads Proust, sketch by Lisha Jiang

Paul Holdengräber reads Proust, sketch by Doug Salati

Judith Thurman reads Proust, sketch by Carol Fabricatore

Jonathan Galassi reads Proust, sketch by Maelle Doliveux

Lorin Stein reads Proust, sketch by Doug Salati

Julian Tepper reads Proust, sketch by Lauren Simkin Berke

Proust's original notebook of writings and sketches, 1909

Pair with Proust’s previously unknown illustrated poems — a fine addition to famous creator’s secret obsessions and little-known talents — then peek inside the Moleskine sketchbooks of celebrated artists.

Images courtesy of Moleskine

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.