After a few hundred years we may be close to the uttermost frontiers of scientific learning, though its propositions are hard to grasp and lie far from day to day use. But in thousands of years of conversation, observation and experience, we have explored so little of the heart. And yet it is not a complicated organ. We know how to astonish it, thrill it, please it and stab it, yet w eare still at a loss to understand it. Like the weather, its delicately poised agitation is formed by simple but erratic variables. It’s made of a jumble of ill-assorted details. So it seems complex, but isn’t it merely miscellaneous and overloaded? It’s not more intricate than the world of matter, but more elusive and enigmatic. We don’t live below the surface, but we do live on a medley of them.
Our souls writhe with perversities and incongruities. So how could an incisive analysis of motives, such as Dostoyevsky’s, be anything but a thicket of paradoxes? ‘All contradictions can be found in me,’ wrote Montaigne, ‘depending on some twist or attribute.’
Our being is sewn up from offcuts and oddments, ‘fragments from books and newspapers, scraps of humanity, rags and tatters of fine clothes, patched together as is the human soul,’ as Strindberg put it. We dream of a wholeness which we will never reach. Our disposition is all things but uniform and indivisible. ‘We are entirely made up of bits and pieces,’ the amorphous Montaigne says, ‘so diversely and so shapelessly, that each one of them pulls its own way at each moment.’ Live in consonance with human nature, the stoics urge us, that is, be unalterable and variable, unbalanced and moderate, prying and listless, soppy and hard-hearted, cocksure and diffident, spendthrift and mean, circumspect and foolhardy, spirited and cold, pliant and unappeasable, all colours by turns but not one of them consistently. It is the discords that make the music of humanity worth listening to. ‘There is nothing stable in the world,’ as Keats wrote. ‘Uproar’s your only music.’
Emotions narrow us, and so we conclude that they make us whole.
When we conjecture what has led people to act as they have, we first restrict the field of determinants to motives, and then search for one that appertains to us and that casts us in a bright light. We bring to bear first our general human self-obsession and then our own private self-obsession. We guess that they do things because they desire us or envy us, when they are not thinking of us at all.
Our emotions are the body heat of our egoism.
We get most of our emotions third-hand from the way others evaluate the appearance of things.
Some people use distressing feelings, such as anger or self-reproach, to syphon off their thoughts from the real source of their distress. They work up a sham mood to switch their own or others’ gaze from the real one that they do feel. They weep for a deep loss, to steer their thoughts clear of the shallower ones which touch them so much more deeply.
Whether or not we look on the animals as automata, it’s probable that this is how they look on us.
Mind and body may well be one substance, but it is through their felt duality that we take hold of the world.
1 Emotions, banal or complex
The human sciences are bound to overvalue their object of study, since it is the same as their audience. As Twain says, ‘etiquette requires us to admire the human race.’
The most profound explorer can’t fathom the turbid shallowness of the heart
Only the unhappy few who sound their souls to their marrow have heard how hollow they are.
Scan the will and motive, and you won’t think much of life or of your fellow beings. ‘Tout comprendre, c’est tout mépriser.’ To psychologize is to despise. To become expert in it, you must wield the instruments of empathy, apathy and revenge. No one is a hero to their psychologist. Psychology is the science that proves to us that we are far more facile, predictable, venal, dishonest and unself-knowing than we assumed.
Some dispositions are penned in an invisible ink, which you have to hold up to the flame of your ill will in order to read. And some are so well secured by their self-opinion, that suspicion is the one tool precise enough to pick their lock.
Some people strike you as more vivid than you thought they would be before you met them. But you soon find that they are more vapid than they seem when you have just met them. They harbour odd and astounding longings, but for flat and dull reasons. Their fingerprints are more distinct and inimitable than their minds. They are like journals, worth skimming through, but not worth rereading, diverting and informative, but mass-produced and disposable. Most of us are more thin and spectral than our solid presence makes us seem at first glance.
I fail to foresee so much of what happens to me, because it’s so banal that it falls below my theatrical expectations. And yet I’m so used to events upending my most confident predictions, that I’m shocked when they turn out just as I envisaged. ‘We are,’ as Hoffer wrote, ‘more surprised when something we expected comes to pass than when we stumble on the unexpected.’ We may be caught off guard by the very calamities that we foresaw. The most surprising thing about most of us is how predictably we behave.
Our compulsions are convoluted but not complex, and our schemes are ingenious but not wise.
People feel from one minute to the next more wayward emotions, memories, intimations, wounds and wants than they could find words for or than you could surmise. Their transitory feelings, recollections, intuitions, pinings and impressions pierce deeper than their conscious thoughts. Their interior lives are as rich as a novel, but their views are as thin and meagre as a dusty critic’s exposition of it. ‘People,’ as Valéry says, ‘are unutterably more complex than their ideas.’ Thinkers are those rare people whose ideas are more complex and interesting than they are.
If we didn’t wear clothes, would we be so sure that we have souls? It is in part our exterior coverings and complications that make us assume that we have such rich interior lives.
2 The shallow unconscious
Our unconscious is the shallowest part of us. And we live most of our life unconsciously.
We are lashed on by a ruck of conscious aims of which we are nevertheless unaware, and by a crew that lurk beneath the surface but which are still quite superficial. The unconscious is submerged and murky but not deep. Our compulsions seem profound because they surge up from a mysterious though shallow font. Our latent drives get the better of us because their shoals measure the same as our squalid heart’s compass.
We are so shallow, that we feel sure that the unconscious alone goes deep, and that we think searchingly when we don’t think deliberately. Most of us, who live by facile whims and promptings of which we are not aware, scorn thoughts and words for being merely conscious.
‘Once we know our infirmities,’ Lichtenberg maintained, ‘they cease to do us harm.’ But you no more rout your preconscious drives by becoming conscious of them than you heal a disorder by diagnosing it. ‘Recognizing idols for what they are,’ as Auden points out, ‘does not break their enchantment.’ Your irrational and undisclosed cravings may grip you all the more forcibly when you wake to what they are, since then you feel constrained to reinforce them with reasons. And by the time that we have seen our errors, they are so much part of our character, that we have no wish to give them up.
You may slip into a fault just because you eye it so warily and take such pains to shun it. We are doomed to take on the same propensities that we found most repellant in our parents. ‘After a certain age,’ Proust wrote, ‘the more one becomes oneself, the more obvious one’s family traits become.’
My sleeping dreams conjure up scenes as egocentric as my waking ones. I play the lead in all of them. In the sea of sleep I still don’t cast off from the blighted island of self.
Those who hatch no valuable thoughts while they’re awake are in no doubt that they do so when they are asleep. Dreams come to us through the low gateway of ivory, imagination’s true visions through the lofty portals of horn. Sleep is the mind’s idiot amusement park. We may seem most like artists when we dream, but that is when they are least like artists. ‘A dreamer,’ Cocteau says, ‘is always a bad poet,’ as a madman is to some degree a bad actor who has lost all sense of self-mockery. Art and thought have gained far more from the vacancy of sloth and ennui than from the tinseled hyperactivity of dreams. Dreams and wish-fulfilments are the type not of art but of kitsch.
We confuse art, the most formed and considered thing, with dreams, the most unformed and random one.
Your dreams won’t teach you a thing. But you may learn a great deal from sleeplessness. You can get a day’s work done in one insomniac hour.
Freud was not a bad scientist, but merely a bad literary critic. He conceded that ‘wherever I go I find that a poet has been there before me.’ He thought that he could stitch together a rigorous science of the mind by reducing a few foundational tales to crude formulas. As a theory psychoanalysis arrays in a mythological frame not psychological facts but our trite notions of them. As a therapy it is psychic blood-letting, and the analyst clings like a tenacious leech. Freud was a scientific quack, but a genuine old-fashioned sage.
3 Character eaten by anecdote
We are all swimming away from the strand of truth out to a waste sea of stories. We go from dry and barren fact to gaudy and barren anecdotes. Who would not rather reel off tales of what they’re up to than search out the truth of what they are? Anecdotes are as amusing as analysis is mortifying. Stories dress up our selfishness, but analysis strips it bare. We tell them in order to garnish our greed and hide how implacably it wolfs its way to what it wants. We nowadays consume the whole world through story, and stories urge us on to keep consuming. If you want to spruik anything, you have to package it as a narrative. Story is the form which is most characteristic of capitalism and bourgeois individualism.
May your years have the tang of racy tales.
We live by anecdotes, which pulse with incident and variety, but lack form and resonance. Some of us add up to not much more than the sum of the stories that we tell of our doings, and some are what remains when all our tales have been told. ‘Who could conceive a biography of the sun?’ Baudelaire asked. ‘It is a tale replete with monotony, light and grandeur.’ But most of us turn out to be like cheap potboilers, with more plot than character, thought or style.
We judge people by their fluctuating fortunes, and from these we attribute to them permanent traits.
Don’t we decide what those near us are like partly for dramatic effect? We want to people our life’s stage with a large troupe of characteristic types.
Some of us seem sane because we are able to rein in one breed of lunacy that threatens to buck us by riding some other which looks less wild and out of control.
We are all mad, and so we have to humour one another as if we were in our right minds. We have to learn to speak to each other as if we were grown up and could bear to be told the truth.
You don’t spot how cracked some people are because they are so conventional. And you don’t spot how conventional others are because they are so crazy.
Insanity is a set of maladaptive illusions, sanity is a set of adaptive ones. Madness is an inflation of self in ways that harm the self and others, sanity is an inflation of self in ways that help them. Sickness of any kind, as Lamb wrote, ‘enlarges the dimensions of a man’s self to himself.’
Mad people unnerve us, because they are so evidently the puppets of their compulsions, which is what we all fear we might be.
We have to find a way to lose ourselves, as a ruse to keep our thoughts off our crushing losses. We are so shallow, that we alleviate a grief more efficaciously by deflecting our mind from it than by inquiring into it. We entomb our sorrows deep in our hearts, since that is the district that we frequent least. In grief, diversion is better than cure. ‘The only thing grief has taught me,’ Emerson wrote, ‘is to know how shallow it is.’ Our grief flows deeper than we say, but shallower than we think.
Most people readily recover from deep shocks to their soul. In order to harrow them, you have to strike at their material interest or their social standing.
The deaths of those I don’t care for seem to accord with nature. The deaths of those I love outrage nature.
When those whom you love die, they glow all the more luminously for you. It’s you who live on that fade to a wraith, to loiter behind in this limbo of low goings-on, which looks grey and bleached of meaning now that they have ceased to light it up. It is we who, as Shelley wrote, ‘lost in stormy visions, keep with phantoms an unprofitable strife.’
I grieve because others change. And I cease to grieve because I change.
Are those who mourn harrowed more by what they can’t remember or by what they can’t forget?
How deftly self finds its way into the most self-forgetful grief. When I mourn for my dead, I sigh for what I have lost, not for what they have lost. Pity me, I miss my friend. I feel sorry for myself for the brief pang that their eternal loss costs me. True grief gives them a peaceful home till we die, where they can live once more the pain of their loss, unmolested by our showy tears.
Our mourning is selfish because our love is selfish. When we grieve, we are crushed by the desolate selfishness of loss, from which we are delivered by the fierce selfishness of returning desire. Our greed for life eats up our grief for the dead. The passing of the one you loved may eclipse your egoism for a brief hour, but it won’t blot it out for long.
The soul-stirring gestures of our grief help to take our minds off the dead.
Grief is love’s dark similar. It has its fervid romance and its long fractious marriage. All love will end in mourning, and that will return you to the first ardour of your love.
Grief, like sex, floods our flesh with an irresistible inundation. They both work by a kind of imagination, mingling memory and fantasy, guilt and desire.
Loss, like love or poetry, imbues the most exiguous details with meaning, and inspires a rhapsody of superabundant suggestion. Do we cherish what has slipped from us just to swell the significance of what we still retain? We have nothing to lose but life, and so we assume that life must be of inestimable value.
I feel that I have a right to find comfort when I let slip the priceless things that I took for granted and the worthless ones that I craved too much. We can think of nothing worse than to be deprived of the cheap garbage that we have toiled so sedulously to shovel up.
We are solaced by the lie that we are solaced by the truth.
You blunt your pain not just by which particular illusions you hold but as much by the way in which you hold them. Treat a consolation as more than a holiday, and you’ve lumbered on your back one more office and obligation, which will bow you as low as the sorrow that you want to crawl out from under.
We may allay a light loss by lessening it, but we allay a large one by magnifying it. ‘What sorrow is like unto my sorrow?’ is the cry that marks the egoist.
How smartly I find ease for troubles of which I’m not even aware. At times I grope for some gaudy comfort to hide how soon I was comforted by a mere toy, and at times I need it to make sense of a great sorrow that I don’t quite feel. I’m cheered less by the consolation than I am by my erroneous views about what I required to be consoled for.
Even in my most gruelling trials I want to be flattered as much as I want to be relieved. In our ordeals and degradations we still hope to be the cynosure of all eyes. We have three sovereign balms, truth, love and death. And when knowledge hurts and love goes, death alone is left to do the work. But conceit plays the fraudulent comforter, and so it is the one thing that you can count on to console you. Any lie will dim your pain in time of tribulation, and the lie of your significance will do so best of all. I lull to sleep my griefs by thinking less of them and more of my own importance. We can bear the lack of love, riches, success or liberty, so long as we lack self-reflectiveness as well.
Our delicate deceits show how hard our plight is.
The most exalted things might lift our heavy hearts, but most times it’s the lowest ones that do so. Commonplaces are our most effective consolations, since they best tally with the smallness of our minds. ‘A trifle consoles us,’ says Pascal, ‘because a trifle upsets us,’ though a trifle will numb us where a blow will barely bruise us. When we claim that art has saved us, we mean that, like some cheap bagatelle, it has kept our minds from brooding on the real torments that we need to be saved from.
When we’ve lost what’s most dear to us, we need false condolences, ceremonials, emollient nostrums, sugary tunes and bad verse. These tactfully disguise from us the more ignoble schemes that are even now thronging in to take its place. I use my anodynes to prove how sorely I’ve been gored, while I push on to the next shallow enterprise that will soon fill all my heart. But I scorn the facile succour held out by my comforters, which I soon won’t need since I’ll be so swept up in my facile preoccupations. The scars have long since healed of the lacerations that I was sure would send me to the grave.
Any grief that can be assuaged by the rituals of mourning can’t have pierced too deep.
Necessity will eventually force on you the remedies which your sound sense was too faint-hearted or too steadfast to provide.
The largeness of a great mind might go close to reconciling you to your own littleness. Things that overtop you hearten you when high exploits exceed your reach. Your dumb and just reverence for golden accomplishments may not lend you a ray of their own refulgence, but they may lighten the load of your lumbering dullness. They may not give you solace, but they will relieve you of the need for it. It’s petty minds that needle me into dissatisfaction and pettiness. The brightest achievements extinguish envy yet stoke the flame of emulation. They elevate but don’t ingratiate, cheer but don’t stupefy, teach me to pay tribute to their immensity while not resenting my own inadequacy, and prove to me the fairness even of my own neglect. Emerson says that ‘he that loveth maketh his own the grandeur he loves.’
I treasure my consolations, but they crumble like porcelain ornaments as soon as I start to handle them. They were made for show and not for use. They invariably fail me, but it may be I need them just so that I can say that they fail me. When I’ve forsaken all the more creditable things, I like to feel that there is one thing at least that has forsaken me.
Art and philosophy help you to bear only those woes that you need no help in bearing.
The consolations that you take up to ease your pain will end up crippling you unless you could get on just as well without them. Like subtle parasites, they keep alive the gloominess that they batten on. They act on us like sweet poisons and toxic medicines, palliating the symptoms of our bereavement, while prolonging the disease. Look for solace, and you will meet it at every turn, but if you need it, you will find how insidiously it will sap your strength.
We mistake our shallow habits for our deep self. And then we allow our adopted habits to usurp who we are. What I do is more definite and stable and colourful than what I am. And when I detail myself by my routines I cadge some of this stability and definition and colouring for my self.
The most frivolous customs may cling for the longest time. A catholic may sooner quit believing in the trinity than eating fish on Friday. In this shallow world it’s the most superficial things that go deepest and last longest.
Personality is an indolent friction. It’s a clutter of habits which retards your march but is not so hard as having to choose the right way at each stride.
We take up our habits to push our self-interest, and we hold on to them to keep up our self-regard. Rigid people are less determined to succeed than they are to cling to the customs that hamper them from doing so. They would rather give up a chance for gain than a fixed idea. They force their ampler designs to bend to their crabbed routines. And then they stick to these for years after they’ve ceased to subserve the objective for which they took them up. ‘Even the most adept egotist,’ Nietzsche says, ‘regards his set ways as more salient than his advantage.’ My egoism costumes itself in the everyday wear of my habits. I could change them in a trice, were I not so vain of them. It is an impotent autocrat whose sway would topple on the spot if I once refused to bow to its directives.
We might not find it so hard to change our habits if we were less aware of them. We clutch them so tight because we’re so proud of them.
You have to submit to be duped by faith, so that you can go on seeking a despairing wisdom. You need a few void and buoyant hopes to ferry you across the boiling sea of life.
Hope is our worst flatterer and our best friend.
Our hopes make such fools of us, that we have to fool ourselves with yet more hopes. We are the happy dupes of hope. It is the source of half our miseries and the sole comfort we can count on to quiet us for them. The most tenuous hope is a more secure possession than the most solid success. Hope, which hourly misguides us, is yet the one real joy that we can call our own, ‘the chief happiness which this world affords,’ as Johnson puts it. It is the lungs of our delight. If it gives out we drown in a hideous deep black water. Hope divided by anxiety totals happiness. A tally short of one, and your life goes dark.
If we had any real grounds for hope, we would have no need of it.
How could you work in the absence of hope? Hope makes you work, or work will make you hope. Thus action is, as Conrad words it, ‘the friend of flattering illusions.’ So long as we act, we can’t but feel that we are the centre of the world. Our lives are filled up by action and fiction, and would be scooped out by contemplation and truth.
Our hearts are haunted by shadows of lost sunshine and forebodings of looming darkness. Our hope is our current and real self-satisfaction promising us illusory satisfactions to come. Hope steals your present joy by teasing you with a prospective bliss, and your fears disturb your peace of mind now by apprehending knocks to come. Hope toys with you like a kitten with a mouse, mercilessly deferring your reprieve. After a while you hear in its blandishments the ominous overture to some new discouragement, and you dread joyfulness as if it were an intruder come to break in on your settled gloom.
To hope is to put off life and put on illusion. And since our optimism will make the world so much better than it is now, why would anyone want to live in the present?
9 The house of desolation
Life schools us to despair, but we are too smug and greedy to learn to do anything but hope. We have plenty of reasons to despair, and so it’s just as well that we don’t live by reason. I learn so tardily to despond, and I forget so soon. The spinning years unravel all my dreams. But following all my failures, I fail at last to despair.
When the tide of hope goes out, you’re left plastered with a slime of despair, which no future fulfilment can rinse off. ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.’
Most of us don’t lead lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau claimed. He might have lost all heart if he knew how few of us do. On the contrary we lead lives of noisy and hectic self-satisfaction. Who now has the leisure to despond? We are all in too much of a hurry to get and spend. Hope stinks eternal on the human breath.
My hopes betray me, and I betray my despair. I’m rarely worthy of my desperation, and in the end I prove unfaithful to it. And the despair that I feel is unworthy of the despair that I think I feel. I give up my lofty aims, because I can’t let go of my low cravings. And yet at times I have to put on a fake despondency to navigate my thoughts away from my real one.
I try to dignify my frustration by titling it despondence, and my disappointment by titling it disillusionment. We don’t have enough faith to be capable of much despair. And in this life, where our will is so often thwarted, don’t we need to take refuge in hope’s sweet perfidy? Only a lapsed demigod would have the fortitude to bear real hopelessness. To hope is human, to despair divine.
Let go of all your ampler hopes, and a hundred sucking tentacles of desire will still keep you stuck to life. Having staked all on a single venture, how gaily you go on with your struggle once that’s miscarried. You find that what you live for you can easily live without. You will, as Austen said, ‘live to exert, and frequently to enjoy’ yourself.
Not even a dread despair will harden you to the million pinpricks of frustration that come your way. Desperation won’t save you from disappointment, and disappointment won’t save you from being fooled by hope, as polar regions, abandoned by the sun, are lit up by gaudy northern lights. When all your prospects have gone black, your consternation lives on to tell you how strongly you are still bound to the world.
‘Hope,’ Dickinson wrote, ‘is a subtle glutton.’ Overactive expectations breed tumours of despair. Faith is bloated by the hunger of despondency, which is, as George Eliot said, ‘often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope.’ Are any so eaten up by hope as those who have lost all grounds for it? Its ghouls haunt them, and plunge them in a gloom still more menacing and sinister. Its toadstools sprout in the damp shade of desolation. When you have nothing to hope for, you also have nothing but hope. ‘The miserable,’ as Shakespeare wrote, ‘have no other medicine.’ However threadbare our coats may be, we keep their pockets stuffed with hopes.
Who hopes so incorrigibly as an invalid who trusts that this latest cure will work, for no better reason than that all the foregoing ones have failed?
Hope is a flower which smells no worse to us for being dunged with a thousand disappointments.
The Lord of hosts fed the chosen seed with the thin sustenance of despair, while he led them hopelessly astray in the wilderness.
Our affirmations only flag our hopelessness. Try to enunciate your faith, and you will let show how deeply you despond.
To despair is to be both burningly awake to life and worse than dead. It is to know that in order to go on, we must have hope, and yet that there is no hope.
Despair is an experiment to test if we have the strength to live without the staff of lies and illusions. In the lucid pit of despair you at last come to believe what you have long known to be true. World-weariness is the nausea which overcomes us when we have evacuated the lies that help us to digest the truth. Lose the knack of deceiving yourself, and you are no longer fit to live in this world. ‘Don’t part with your illusions,’ Twain cautioned. ‘When they are gone, you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.’ When they give way beneath you, death is the one thing left to cushion your fall.
To despair is to find the one deep gulf of truth in this world of shallows, and fall into it, and never make your way out.
You know that you’re approaching the heart of reality, the closer you get to the black hole of despair.
Those who have been dying their life long don’t go out in peace but in terror and despair, their minds nettled by their paralysis, like poisoned rats in a hole.
When I have a deep personal motive to loathe someone, I’m glad when they furnish me with a fine moral pretext to mask it. I feel grateful to them when they put themselves in the wrong and give me an opportunity to rain on them my lofty forgiveness. I resent them for their rectitude more than for their faults.
Our enmities and antagonisms arise as accidentally as our amities. Few of them are rich or deep enough to last very long. There are a lot of people whom I might hate more reasonably and fruitfully than the ones that I do, if I but knew them.
Few of us are important enough to have enemies, though most of us make it a point of pride that we do. Luckily for us few people care enough about us to wish to do us harm.
Those who appear to hate themselves in fact want to mark themselves off from the people whom they despise but fear they might be lumped with. What better way to prove that you are not bourgeois than by execrating the rest of the bourgeoisie? ‘The middle class,’ as Renard notes, ‘is other people.’
There are two ways to hate a thing. You can hate it for what it is or you can hallow its fake effigy. And isn’t this what we do with the image of our own self? We love it more than all the world, but since we know it so distantly, isn’t it a mere shifty similitude that we adore?
Few people are worth all the malice that we lavish on them.
Misanthropes presume that they don’t need anything so much that they have to accommodate the world’s benign hypocrisy to get it.
Love and friendship prune your selfishness into more acceptable shapes, but they don’t weed it out. ‘Our true passions,’ as Stendhal said, ‘are selfish.’ I cherish what I own or what I hope to make my own. Egoism is the pull of gravity that keeps us in orbit round one another.
Those who love for their own ends love no more than themselves. But those who love without a personal end in view most likely don’t love at all.
Our egoism is such a burden to us, that we try to make others bear it with us by making them the object of our love or hate.
Our complacent self-love makes our love too blind to spot the flaws of the one whom it has chosen for its own.
Two selfish people may form a most affectionate partnership, provided they can join to work for some shared selfish goal.
We praise dogs for their selflessness, because their subservient selfishness gratifies our own domineering selfishness.
We have to go on adoring those we love, for fear of how we would feel toward them if we stopped.
Love knows no drudgery. A labour of love is no labour at all. ‘And Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her.’
I demean myself in front of those who love me, in order to feel secure that I need not prove that I’ve earned the right to their love.
Some people love with their hopes, and some with their fears. And in the same way some love themselves with their hopes, and they strive and swagger, while those who do so with their forebodings flinch and hang back.
The trials that a couple must brave together may tear them asunder. The death of a child may spell the end of a marriage.
Romance, like jealousy, is a wild curiosity, but love sports in a settled knowledge. It performs its daily miracle when it consummates your curiosity without diminishing your astonishment or destroying your illusions.
We are so affectionate, that we need something to love. But we stand ready to throw this over, if we find something more to our taste.
Some of us talk least and maybe think least of those whom we love most. ‘If I loved you less,’ says Austen’s Mr Knightley, ‘I might be able to talk about it more.’ Passion loosens some tongues and stops others. And yet it’s only those couples who cheerfully tell each other all they think and do who can cheerfully stay still and silent together.
We warp our emotions when we give vent to them. But don’t we do the same when we try to hold them in, since we never cease to talk to our own hearts, which are so hungry to lap up our sugared lies?
Love is of all things the one most subject to chance, and so we have to pretend that it is the work of destiny.
Malice sees the parts, love sees the whole.
Some of the sturdiest marriages are based on mutual fallibility. ‘And that support is wonderfully sure,’ as Pascal says, ‘since there is nothing more certain than that people shall be weak.’ Many dote on their spouse for years for faults that they couldn’t stomach in anyone else for five minutes. How few couples could stand each other if they weren’t bound to live under the one roof.
A loyal husband or wife won’t forgive anyone else who dares to speak of their mate as they think of them.
Marriage is a machine for converting a passing mutual flattery to a durable shared self-interest.
Most people are bitten by love when they’re young, and can be cured only by marrying.
Perfection compels you to admire, but blemishes kindle dry admiration into love. The flaws of the one you’re fond of form gullies which you level by flooding them with yet more fondness, and so make them some of the traits that most endear them to you.
To be adored is a common enough fate. How intoxicating to win a person’s love, but how sobering to keep it. And how it chills the heart to recognize what you are cherished for.
Cruel people want to understand others as they actually are. When you love, you seek to misunderstand them as they misunderstand themselves.
How could you speak with bluff straightforwardness to one whom you lust for or one whom you love? You can tell the truth only to those that you don’t care for or to those that you don’t need. ‘Nobody speaks the truth,’ wrote Bowen, ‘when there is something they must have.’ So how could we be frank with ourselves or with God, from both of which we hope to gain such a deal of bliss?
Our affection makes our fawning sincere. It luxuriates in an uninterrupted mutual truckling which it rarely needs to put in words. ‘Lovers never tire of each other’s company,’ La Rochefoucauld says, ‘because they’re talking of themselves all the time.’ And would we not be bad friends to ourselves, if we weren’t continually commending our acts to our own judgement?
Only those who see themselves as they are deserve to be loved. But they will not be very lovable.
Those who are sure that they’re adored grow casually cruel, but so do those who adore them. Idols and their worshippers are both made of stone.
What greater wrong could you do some people than to fall in love with them?
We would be glad to lay down our lives for the ones we love, whom we would be glad to see dead if they ceased to love us. Selfless love asks for no more than undying and exclusive possession of its beloved. Our sacrifices are self-forgetful and yet calculating.
Love or comradeship can turn to hate in the blink of an eye. It’s only in books that hate can turn to tenderness.
We’ve fixed it in our skulls that love rules the stars, since we’re sure that all things must love us.
Each sex both dotes on and in some degree disdains the other like a favourite child.
An impulsive adultery may harm a partnership less than a chilled fidelity.
Men see objects, women see the interrelations which lace them to one another and to us.
Males and females differ in the sorts of things that they are willing to be slaves to, females to what is human, males to what is inhuman. Men maintain their fidelity to their loved ones by lavishing their real passion on some other object.
Your family, like the army, is a brutal education, since it throws you in with people that you wouldn’t wish to know in civilian life.
12 Unrequited love
No love is unrequited. It’s paid in full, though it may be in a coin that you have no use for. ‘The pay is always certain,’ as Whitman says.
An unconsummated passion may impregnate the soul, and so beget a breathing work. Poets waste nothing, not even the men and women that they hold dear. Dante got from Beatrice all that he had need of, but what did she get from him but unwanted adoration?
Some lovers share a mutual unreturned passion, which furnishes them with all that they want from one another.
To love with no hope of reciprocation is to dream of bliss and writhe in hell.
Passion may lose each round in its bout with reason, and yet still win the tournament. We fight a doomed contest with desire. Frustration enrages us, and satiety cloys, yet both beguile us to play the game once more. Dumb lust swindles us, and always disappoints us. Yet it still continues to charm and cheat us. We are slaves to passion, just because it pays us such a pittance.
You can’t kill lust by inanition. It grows fat if fed, and bloated and malformed if starved.
Lust is greed, love is gratitude.
We let slip our bliss in our hungry rush to lay hold of it. We chase it with such breathless celerity that we plough on past it. Brief as our pleasures are, they last a little longer than our absorption in them.
Our twitching desires stimulate but stun our imagination, and electrify but don’t illuminate it. Lust reminds us of our past passions, but expunges from our minds the disappointments they left us with.
We inflate our desires with our fantasies, until they burst in frustration.
Lust soon palls, but love makes its contented bed in custom. ‘Familiar acts,’ says Shelley, ‘are beautiful through love.’ Sweating lust prowls for ceaselessly changing objects on which to renew its unchanging desires. It craves variety, but finds stale monotony. Love grows strong by its routines, which cast their spell by their uncanny predictability.
We are liable to mistake our lusts for our affections, and we may end up mistaking others’ lusts for our own affections.
Our affections are so light and unfixed, that they would blow away if they weren’t anchored by habit and familiarity. And our desires are so boisterous, that they would drive us off course if we weren’t ballasted by our hulking self-interest.
Since we can’t curb our urges, we have to pretend that they meet our needs. We are suspended between desires which we can’t quench, and death which we can’t escape from. Even if we succeed in satisfying our passions, they still fail to satisfy us.
Our lusts make us at once crafty and incautious. They are keen-scented enough to smell out the least opportunity, and yet they recklessly crash through all the barriers that would block their path.
Since we all crave our bliss in this world, we are manifestly not made for a better. But since none of us finds it, how could we be made for this one?
An ascetic stints the sinless hankerings of the loins, to glut the dissolute lusts of the soul.
A dash of repressive puritanism helps to season our licentious pleasures.
If swallowing and swilling were as pleasurable as people claim, why is it that they always do something else at the same time, as if they couldn’t have sex without skimming a newspaper while they were at it? They pay so little attention to their food that they don’t realize how little enjoyment it gives them. The coarsest sensualists are more in thrall to their brainish fantasies than to their carnal cravings. And since they take most of their notions from others, it’s not even their own fantasies that they’re in thrall to. Our imagination is so thin, that we have to flesh it out with real pleasures. And our pleasures taste so bland, that we have to flavour them with hot fantasies. Our pleasures are more than half in our minds, which shows how unsatisfying they are and how low our mind is. ‘To strip our pleasures of imagination,’ as Proust wrote, ‘is to dock them to their own size, that is to say to nothing.’ Real joys are too insipid to overpower us. But we are dazzled by our gaudy dreams of them. They keep us spellbound just because they are chimeras.
Our pleasures are so hollow, that we have to fill them up with our self-satisfaction.
‘Man,’ as Delacroix wrote, ‘is a social animal who dislikes his fellow men.’ We need to feel that we have our own slot in a pack, most of whose members we don’t care for. ‘Although the ox has little affection for his fellows,’ says William James, ‘he cannot endure even a momentary separation from his herd.’
Poverty makes solitude dreadful and society dreary.
You mend a rift with more grace by suing for a favour than by doing one.
Why do we have to be slightly inebriated to bear the slight inebriation of company?
We have a gaggle of discrepant categories of friends. Some are duties, our patrons and clients. Some are a reuters service, which you maintain like cables to relay the bulletins. Some glow like candles, bright erotic sparkles that soon sputter. Some are recreations, which refresh you by diverging from you in cast of mind, occupation, bent and bias. A few may act as your accomplices, though how many do you find that are worthy or able? Most who might be choose to work on their own. You’re in luck if you meet with one good collaborator in life.
Why do we pine for intimacies and confidences, and then cravenly deflect them when they come?
Isn’t most friendship less a kind of love than a mere means of joint amusement? It’s not so much our friends that we like as the enjoyable things that we do with them. We cluster in groups to share our accepted frauds and feather-brained recreations. We want to snatch the most fun for the least sweat. ‘Almost all people,’ as Emerson says, ‘descend to meet.’
A friend differs from a flatterer, not in telling more of the truth, but by telling lies that are more unfeigned and that we feel bound to reciprocate. It’s our friends that we rely on to abet us in our lifelong career of self-deception. In this at least they are like our second selves. A friend is willing to misunderstand you as you misunderstand yourself, a sycophant just pretends to do so for his own ends. A flatterer knows you too well to be a true friend, and a friend who dared to tell us the unflattering truth would not be our friend for long.
Don’t spare me the truth, I say to those who I know I can trust to tell only those truths that suit me.
We are small, frail and imperfect creatures. We are joined to those we love by small, frail and imperfect bonds. But when these crack, it feels like the breaking of worlds.
Your friends are those whom you have no choice but to forgive, even when you have done them wrong.
Some people endure the presence of their friends just so that they can abuse them in their absence. They love to hear others slander those whom they dare not treat as outright enemies. Anyone who has a knack for friendship intuits just how far a friend wants to run down the rest of their friends.
Friends don’t grow close because they like each other, they learn to like each other once they have grown close. Many people wouldn’t much like their friends if they were not friends with them. And some fall out over a trifle, since it shows them what faint fondness they have for one another. Some people owe the sway that they hold over us to the brittleness of the bonds that splice us to them. They are so frail, that we dare not tug at them, since they would snap at once.
What a history of unspoken enmity lies between some of the best of friends.
Who is not appalled by the sentiments of their enemies and by the antics of their allies?
Few of us can tolerate a fool whose foolishness differs a shade from our own.
You can’t help disliking some of your friends when you’re in their company, and others when they’re out of sight. Their tics rasp you when you’re with them, and their faults offend you when you’re not. You have to stay near to certain people, so you won’t find out how little you like them. ‘We think well of them while we are with them,’ Hazlitt says, ‘and in their absence recollect the ill we durst not hint at or acknowledge to ourselves in their presence.’
The sole kind of conversation that most of us find decent consists in swapping anecdotes about how well we’re getting on and how much fun we’re having.
In polite conversation we defer to some person who is old or august or staid, and we vie to sound as respectable and prim, but in nimble-witted discussion we strive to outdo one another in ridicule and wit, and strain to show that we have mastered the catchphrases of the hour.
We’ve agreed on the codes of conversing so that we can speak amiably to one another without saying a thing. Most small-talk, like dentistry, just fills inconvenient gaps.
Most people have to talk to others all the time, since they don’t have much of interest to say to themselves.
Sometimes you have to flee into company so as to stop thinking about other people.
We feel sure that we talk much less than we do, but say much more than others do, and that they store up our few clipped and polished words like pearls.
When the wise talk to a fool, they feel like fools. And when a fool talks to the wise, he has no doubt that they must be fools.
Fools are told nothing but foolishness, and even when told something wiser, that is all that they hear.
Who would not rather talk to a dunce than listen to a sage?
You must be exceptional, if you can win and keep your joy in retirement or your truth in the crowd. Your solitude ought to be as replete and well-tempered as society, apt to tease and shame you into good humour.
Loneliness is boredom imprisoned by embarrassment and protracted into hopelessness, but true solitude is a buoyant pride consecrated to some worthy endeavour. Loneliness is a fast, solitude is a rich feast. Insularity is a parching desert, but seclusion freshens you like an oasis in life’s populous wilderness. You feel lonesome when you fall in with the wrong company, though the wrong company may be your own soul, and you are most friendless when you have no more to say to yourself.
The grand house of solitude soon sinks to a slum of lonesomeness, if not maintained in good trim. Like friendship, it must be kept in constant repair.
We recall events with our eyes, nose and pores. But we don’t remember with our ears, which may be just as well, since they don’t give us much that is worth remembering. Memory allures us so long as it stays mute. If it could speak, would we not find what poor stuff it had to tell us?
Aren’t our memories all as egoistic as our dreams? What I recall is not the scenes which I saw, felt, underwent, but myself seeing, feeling, undergoing them.
Change exists because of time, yet time exists because of change.
Why do ten years in the long roll of history seem so much lengthier than ten years in our own brief life?
We are not what we remember, as Augustine argued, nor are we what we forget or what we have repressed. Are we not much more than each of these, but all of the things that we imagine, hope, love, desire, own or aspire to?
We each die a second death, first the death of the flesh, and then of the world’s remembrance of us.
Grief foreshortens the perspective of our pain, but distances us from our lost joys. The death of those you loved may seem like yesterday, but their life an age ago. Their going stays with you, their life is what you’ve lost. Do we injure them more by our forgetting or by commemorating them so ponderously?
The dead come to form the north of all our memories, which they attract as they failed to do when they were with us. Too shadowy now to dominate our waking hours, they colonize our sleep and become the usurpers of our dreams.
Our memories may pester us like lice, but we do enjoy a good scratch.
For some people, their past is a jungle, which they have to napalm, in order to clear it of the sinister recollections which they fear lurk in ambush for them.
Life loads us with a freight of leaden memories, from which we have to hope death will disencumber us.
When we are happy, all our memories, both sweet and bitter, sweeten our happiness. But when we are sad, they all make our sadness more bitter.
Even the events that I recall vibrantly I do so in mere fragments and scatterings. ‘We do not remember days,’ says Pavese, ‘we remember moments.’ My memories, so fugitive yet so persistent, are as stranded and patched as I am myself. They lack the continuity of a film, the articulacy of a book, or the distinctness of a photograph, and yet they overpower me as none of these can. Memories are not stories, and stories are not like memories.
Our memories seem as clear-cut as crystal, till we look at them more closely, and they melt and lose their shape.
People assume that they can call back a scene inerrantly because they call it back vividly, and that they call it back vividly because they call back what they felt when it took place. But we can be sure that the events we recollect intensely did not happen as we remember. We think that we remember experiences distinctly because we experience the recall of them so distinctly. Year by year our memories are clarified by our illusions. The eyewitnesses of the resurrection incised it on their hearts in sharp but inaccurate detail.
Memory, like art, manufactures meaning rather than representing it. But the meaning that memory makes is temporary and fitful. Reverie wraps dross in gilding. Why else would it rouse our tears so dependably? It acts like a crazy miser and a crazy wastrel. It makes treasures of trifles, while fecklessly frittering away a million. ‘It is always throwing away gold,’ Twain says, ‘and hoarding rubbish.’ It salvages splinters of cheap glass, which its alchemy makes glister like diamonds. Like everything else that we own, our memories wouldn’t seem to be worth much if they weren’t ours.
Memories fall from the sky like rain, and all kinds of weather precipitate squalls of reverie. I can call to mind momentous days, but I can’t let go of a few stray inconsequential ones, still winter hours when filaments of the past hang like dust in sunlight. It’s not what you can recall, but what you cannot help recalling, that rends your heart.
You rediscover in your yesterdays the flat banalities of today, in exotic provinces the greyness of your own, in dreams the cheap confabulations of waking life. Nostalgia breaks the past’s magic spell, since it shows you that its charm is little more than a trick of the light.
Those who are prone to nostalgia waste their lives trying to recapture the thrill of a moment that they scarcely felt the first time.
Life is all the time rewriting the radiant poem of the past as the dull prose of the present.
Nostalgia is a yearning for a home which we never had.
Nostalgists go abroad so that they can come back and pine for regions where they don’t belong. They yearn not for home but for their homesickness. And when they come home they grow still more wistful. They are stirred to the core by emotions that they have ceased to feel. Like Pessoa, they learn to miss their memories of the past more than the past itself. And at last, like Basho, they long for home most touchingly when they have not even left it.
There’s no need to have lost a thing to feel nostalgic for it.
The one alienation more bitter than being a stranger in a strange land is to feel like a stranger in your own land.
Nostalgia is a malaise of time which time will soon mend. It afflicts those who have too few memories. The young are susceptible to it, as they have such short storms of sorrow to call back to mind so lovingly.
The brightest and gladdest day of your life has been bleached from your mind long ago. Your most joyful recollections are not recollections of joy. Reverie makes an art of chiaroscuro. It needs broad swathes of blackness to paint its shimmering pictures. Wistful people don’t pine for the past because they feel sad now, they pine for it because they felt sad then.
No one can wrest from me my memories, and so I toss them away.
If you repine that your past didn’t go more slowly, you probably wish that your present would go more swiftly.
Yesterday, today and tomorrow, each has its own special pathos. Yesterday’s tears of pining and regret, today’s for the dear things that dart so fast from our embrace, and tomorrow’s for all our vain longings. These are the three tenses of our sadness.
Relays of reverie keep arriving as envoys from the past, to tell you that you are outcast from it for all time. Don’t we all have enough blissful memories to bruise our hearts? Paradise would still be hell, if we had to leave our memories on earth, or if we had to cart them with us. Memory is our heaven or our hell.
Our nostalgia makes us feel that we must be immortal. What other bark could lug this cargo of precious memories through till the end of time? Our past glories are the best guarantee of our future continuance.
19 Youth and age
Whatever age we happen to be, we count those younger than us callow, and those much older than us dull. ‘Each generation,’ as Orwell said, ‘imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.’
No matter how old we are, life seems to be just beginning, and we learn so little from it, that it always is, till it ends. ‘We arrive,’ La Rochefoucauld says, ‘as thoroughgoing tyros at the sundry phases of life.’
Only a soppy and doddering age such as ours could have got it lodged in its head that children are geniuses. We all agree that children are miraculous prodigies, but where are the masterpieces that they have made?
The young live as freshly and lustily as they think stiffly, stalely and drily. It takes a lifetime for their flesh to grow as heavy and wrinkled as their minds. ‘The soul,’ as Wilde says, ‘is born old but grows young.’ Flesh decays by changing, the mind by remaining the same. As we grow up, our world dilates, but our minds stay as small as ever they were. ‘If lads and lasses grew up consonant with early indications,’ Goethe wrote, ‘we should have nothing but geniuses,’ but we have so few, because they cling to their unripe habits without developing them. It is not the astonished philosopher who retains the heart of a child, but the acquisitive trader, whose aim is to get hold of as many toys as possible to play with and show off. And yet some people are sure that they must have been precocious children, since they’ve still not outgrown their first adolescent opinions. We all start out as prodigies. A fresh mind alone matures into something deeper and more capacious. It’s dullards that hang on to the traits of youth, its mindless legalism, pettiness, flippancy, cribbed hair-splitting, iterations and impatience. Only a pioneer busts their hold, and stays green and keeps mutating and evolving. ‘It takes a long time,’ as Picasso said, ‘to grow young.’
Most people’s mental development ends with the onset of puberty. As Proust wrote, ‘It is from adolescents who last long enough that life makes its old people.’
At sixty our flesh shows what our mind has been since sixteen.
Some old people’s brains are so active and unimpaired, that they still have as many silly ideas rattling round in them as they did when they were young.
Gravity and sloth age the mind as they do the flesh.
Why do the young spend the best part of their lives searching for authorities to guide them how to rebel against authority?
All our good days are done, our bright dawns have waned, their freshness has faded, their dew has sweated off in our glaring neon. ‘For the world has lost his youth, and the times begin to wax old.’
Many who waste their bright youth waiting for their life to start waste the remainder of their years in a vain bid to get back their youth.
You have not lived long enough, if you would choose to be one day younger.
Why squander your golden youth drudging to buy a luxurious pillow for your grizzled age, which will be too drowsy to feel the good of it?
Children incarnate all the cruel partiality and cold glee of life. They are the evergreen world being reborn the same, merciless, inquisitive, ardent. ‘Every child,’ Thoreau says, ‘begins the world again.’ How sad to look into their eyes and think of all that they’ll see to dry up their hearts, and how soon they’ll be drawn into desiring it all. Their unthinking innocence will soon have grown up into an unthinking viciousness.
The young feel the burning, the old taste the ashes, and neither can get their fill of them. When you’re young, each sting hurts you more than it should. And when you grow up, what should gash you won’t so much as graze your skin. Was childhood frightful, because such small slurs rubbed you so raw, or because you were rubbed so raw by what was so flat and nugatory? No doubt it’s all changed now that we are older.
What murky shapes loom out of the dark of childhood to harry us through life.
I want to gain my big adult triumphs just to sate a few infantile yearnings. The world is so topsy-turvy because we are all still schoolgirls or boys squabbling to prevail in a game which is not worth the winning.
As we go on in life, we collect an extensive wardrobe of grownup costumes to overlay our childish desires, till age strips us back once more to stark childishness. ‘Men,’ as Dryden wrote, ‘are but children of a larger growth.’
As I age, I don’t see that my capacities are decaying, since my judgment is decaying at the same pace. No matter how old we may be, we don’t doubt that we are just coming into our prime and that our latest work is our best.
How unhappy a happy childhood may have been. How could you believe in an age of gold, when you have lived through one in your youth, and know how tarnished it was?
Children don’t play aimlessly, but spend all their time copying, competing and elaborating convoluted rules. ‘Games are not games for children,’ Montaigne wrote, ‘but are the most serious thing they do.’ Play initiates us into the solemn ways of the world.
Children charm us, not because they are so natural, but because they are so mannered, ‘as if their whole vocation,’ in Wordsworth’s phrase, ‘were endless imitation.’ They’re still conning their parts, and they play them more awkwardly than us, since we have been rehearsing ours for a lifetime.
The self-satisfaction of the young brims over as a bubbling delight in life.
The young strut and prance like vain players, and the elderly sit and judge like smug critics.
The young wreck the world to snatch their cut of it. And dotards wreck the world seeing that they will be departing it so soon. They fight to keep their shrivelled grip on what they made no use of in their green time. Like children asked to give up a toy that they had never played with, they find that they feel a sudden commitment to a skill or subject that for fifty years they’ve had no call for.
Life at its best tastes so foul, yet we all hope to live to an age where we will get down to its sourest dregs of ill-health and imbecility. Old age is the most fitting punishment for those who have had the temerity to live too long, and soon we might bring a worse on ourselves when we find out the secret of immortality.
We race through life, and crawl toward our end. We have sped up life and drawn out death. We scarcely know that we’re alive, yet we feel death approaching for years, even as we remain as gadding and distracted as teenagers.
Most of us claim that we would rather die than live to be too old, yet none of us think that we are too old. Those who lead such unlovely lives can think of nothing more beautiful than that they should draw breath for one more day.
It wouldn’t matter that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, if you could break it of its ingrained ones.
Our youth and seedtime oozed and stormed like bad verse which the drab prose of our maturity had to temper and emend. And yet maturity in most of us is no better than the torpid and self-congratulatory prose that a scribbling versifier would write.
The least disturbance of a face’s configuration may make it unsightly, but one lovely touch is enough to make it adorable.
So much beauty is botched by the very process that should perfect it. Adolescence is a fiery furnace. It mars most of the shapely figures that time puts in it to be finished. They go in so fine, they come out so pocked and sallow and flabby.
Why does our species age more hideously than all the rest? Is it gravitation paying us back for presuming to walk erect and renounce the reticence of fur? Or is gluttony distending our flesh to force it to share its own overfed and florid likeness?
The young have all had a taste of what it is to possess beauty and what it means to lose it. They have all known the delight of the body and the sadness of the flesh. As they age, their face parts with its pure and clean contours, and folds back to an unreadable map of experience. The young have classic profiles but romantic souls, like Canova’s statues or Baudelaire’s verse. Their lineaments must subside to romantic ruins before they can grow classic and harmonious souls.
To be born beautiful is like being born rich in a country with ruinously high taxation. The vainest girl doesn’t know how beautiful she is, or how much she will soon be losing.
The young and lovely troop into the future like the unending waves of an inexhaustible russian battalion, to be mown down and replaced by those in the rear. Time wages a war on beauty which leaves no survivors. It will soon be treating the young with the same careless brutality that they treat the old.