There are two things to aim at in life: first, to get what you want; and, after that, to enjoy it. Only the wisest of mankind achieve the second.
The truth is that the phenomena of artistic production are still so obscure, so baffling, we are still so far from an accurate scientific and psychological knowledge of their genesis or meaning, that we are forced to accept them as empirical facts; and empirical and non-explanatory names are the names that suit them best.
Don't laugh at a youth for his affectations; he is only trying on one face after another to find his own.
The indefatigable pursuit of an unattainable perfection, even though it consist in nothing more than the pounding of an old piano, is what alone gives a meaning to our life on this unavailing star.
The emergence of a new term to describe a certain phenomenon, of a new adjective to designate a certain quality, is always of interest, both linguistically and from the point of view of the history of human thought. That history would be a much simpler matter (and language, too, a much more precise instrument) if new thoughts on their appearance, and new facts at their discovery, could at once be analysed and explained and named with scientific precision. But even in science this seldom happens; we find rather that a whole complex group of facts, like those for instance of gas or electricity, are at first somewhat vaguely noticed, and are given, more or less by chance, a name like that of gas, which is an arbitrary formation, or that of electricity, which is derived from the attractive power of electrum or amber when rubbed — the first electric phenomenon to be noticed.
The truth is that the phenomena of artistic production are still so obscure, so baffling, we are still so far from an accurate scientific and psychological knowledge of their genesis or meaning, that we are forced to accept them as empirical facts; and empirical and non-explanatory names are the names that suit them best. The complete explanation of any fact is the very last step in human thought; and it is reached, as I have said, if indeed it is ever reached, by the preliminary processes of recognition, designation, and definition. It is with these preliminary processes that our aesthetic criticism is still occupied.
"Four Romantic Words" in Words and Idioms : Studies in the English Language (1925), § VI
There are readers—and I am one of them—whose reading is rather like a series of intoxications. We fall in love with a book; it is our book, we feel, for life; we shall not need another. We cram-throat our friends with it in the cruellest fashion; make it a Gospel, which we preach in a spirit of propaganda and indignation, putting a woe on the world for a neglect of which last week we were equally guilty.
I am not at all sorry that I have never been cured of this form of youthful susceptibility; one may after all become the victim of more inadvisable forms of folly. My infatuations have at least one advantage; they may lead to satiety, but they do not often end in disillusion. I have, of course (who hasn’t?), my Bluebeard’s closet of dead loves, abandoned for ever; but for the most part I find that the objects of my former adoration are quite capable of awakening my old affection. My experiences of love at first sight, being followed by love at second or third or fourth sight, I enjoy the bliss of both the constant and the inconstant lover. Indeed, these returns to old books—as I have just now returned to Montaigne’sEssays—have often proved, in a life of desultory reading, to be among the pleasantest experiences of that pleasant scheme of existence.
“Montaigne,” p. 1
We all endeavour, as Spinoza says, to persist in our own being; and that endeavour is, he adds, the very essence of our existence. When, therefore, we find that what delighted us once can still delight us: that though the objects of our admiration may be intermittent, yet they move in fixed orbits, and their return is certain, these reappearances will suggest that we have after all maintained something of our own integrity; that a sort of system lies beneath the apparent variability of our interests; that there is, so to speak, a continuity within ourselves, a core of meaning which has not disintegrated with the years.
“Montaigne,” p. 2
If we find, when we read again one of our classics—say Virgil for instance—that we like it better than ever, the experience may suggest an even more pleasing conjecture. Psychologists tell us that fullness of life is the goal of everything that lives, that the impulse towards completeness, towards ripeness and self-realization, is the most compelling of all motives. These discoveries in old books of new beauties and aspects of interest may persuade us, therefore, that we are not only still ourselves, but more ourselves than ever: that our spirit has not only persisted in its being, but has become more lucid in the process.
“Montaigne,” p. 2
Perhaps not only in his attitude towards truth, but in his attitude towards himself, Montaigne was a precursor. Perhaps here again he was ahead of his own time, ahead of our time also, since none of us would have the courage to imitate him. It may be that some future century will vindicate this unseemly performance; in the meanwhile it will be of interest to examine the reasons which he gives us for it. He says, in the first place, that he found this study of himself, this registering of his moods and imaginations, extremely amusing; it was an exploration of an unknown region, full of the queerest chimeras and monsters, a new art of discovery, in which he had become by practice “the cunningest man alive.” It was profitable also, for most people enjoy their pleasures without knowing it; they glide over them, and fix and feed their minds on the miseries of life. But to observe and record one’s pleasant experiences and imaginations, to associate one’s mind with them, not to let them dully and unfeelingly escape us, was to make them not only more delightful but more lasting. As life grows shorter we should endeavour, he says, to make it deeper and more full. But he found moral profit also in this self-study; for how, he asked, can we correct our vices if we do not know them, how cure the diseases of our soul if we never observe their symptoms? The man who has not learned to know himself is not the master, but the slave of life: he is the “explorer without knowledge, the magistrate without jurisdiction, and when all is done, the fool of the play.”
“Montaigne,” p. 6
It is certainly curious that among all the millions of books that have been written on every conceivable subject, so few writers have really tried to describe the tissue of their thoughts and the actual taste of consciousness. And yet this is, after all, our most immediate and direct experience, the only experience of whose reality we are absolutely certain.
“Montaigne,” p. 7
Experience is always seeking for special literary forms in which its various aspects can find their most adequate expression; and there are many of these aspects which are best rendered in a fragmentary fashion, because they are themselves fragments of experience, gleams and flashes of light, rather than the steady glow of a larger illumination.
“English Aphorists,” pp. 102-103
The disconnected impressions which we derive from life form a kind of knowledge ‘in growth,’ as Bacon called it; an over-early and peremptory attempt to digest this knowledge into a system tends, as he suggests, to falsify and distort it.
“English Aphorists,” p. 103
We frequently fall into error and folly, Dr. Johnson tells us, “not because the true principles of action are not known, but because, for a time, they are not remembered.” To compress, therefore, the great and obvious rules of life into brief sentences which are not easily forgotten is, as he said, to confer a real benefit upon us.
“English Aphorists,” p. 108
Few things are more shocking to those who practice the arts of success than the frank description of those arts.
“English Aphorists,” p. 123
That one should practice what one preaches is generally agreed, but anyone who has the indiscretion to preach what both he and his hearers practice must always incur—as Lord Chesterfield has incurred—the gravest moral reprobation.
“English Aphorists,” p. 123
What draws us to him so closely is that he combined a disillusioned estimate of human nature sufficient to launch twenty little cynics, with a craving for love any sympathy urgent enough to turn a weaker nature into a benign sentimentalist.
Time spent in labouring to perfect one’s style, or to make of it an instrument for the production of imaginative effects, is, Mr. Read tells us, just so much time wasted. Indeed Mr. Middleton Murry says it is worse than this, for nothing could be more dangerous than the notion that the more poetic is prose, the finer it is; this is a heresy that cannot be too much deplored and combated. ‘The terrible attraction of words, the impulse to use them for anything more than exact symbols of the things they stand for, is another danger; any sacrifice of sense to euphony being, these critics tell us, the beginning of decadence: ‘it is a step on the downward path.’ The histories and associations of words, are, Mr. Read says, entirely irrelevant to prose-style, their face-value in current usage being their only value. The young writer is also warned against rhythmical effects and the use of images, and is told that any conscious care for such devices, any playing, like Stevenson, of the sedulous ape to the masters of this technique, must be carefully eschewed.
“Fine Writing,” p. 304
May it [the opposition to fine writing] be accounted for by the fact that the spirit of Puritanism, having been banished from the province of moral conduct, has found a refuge among the arts?
“Fine Writing,” p. 306
The disconcerting fact may first be pointed out that if you write badly about good writing, however profound may be your convictions or emphatic your expression of them, your style has a tiresome trick (as a wit once pointed out) of whispering: ‘Don’t listen!’ in your readers’ ears. And it is possible also to suggest that the promulgation of new-fangled aesthetic dogmas in unwieldy sentences may be accounted for—not perhaps unspitefully—by a certain deficiency in aesthetic sensibility; as being due to a lack of that delicate, unreasoned, prompt delight in all the varied and subtle manifestations in which beauty may enchant us.
Or, if the controversy is to be carried further; and if, to place it on a more modern basis, we adopt the materialistic method of interpreting aesthetic phenomena now in fashion, may we not find reason to believe that the antagonism between journalist critics and the fine writers they disapprove of is due in its ultimate analysis to what we may designate as economic causes? Are not the authors who earn their livings by their pens, and those who, by what some regard as a social injustice, have been more or less freed from this necessity—are not these two classes of authors in a sort of natural opposition to each other? He who writes at his leisure, with the desire to master his difficult art, can hardly help envying the profits of money-making authors.