Woman Reading by Candlelight ~ Peter Ilsted, 1908
Burned onto flimsy wooden signs in souvenir shops, quoted to death on Facebook, memed on Instagram, and included in semi-inspirational books of every sort, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s words continue to resonate nearly two hundred years after his death:
One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, and see a fine picture.
Oddly, Goethe himself never spoke or wrote those words as actual advice. The line belongs to one of Goethe’s characters: a theater manager named Serlo who appears in the novelWilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. It was Serlo who said:
Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect; that every one should study, by all methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things.
For no man can bear to be entirely deprived of such enjoyments: it is only because they are not accustomed to the taste of what is excellent that the generality of people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided they be new.
‘For this reason,’ he would add, ‘one ought every day at least to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.’ [Book V, Chapter 1]
Setting aside for a moment the possibility of speaking a few reasonable words — a phrase generally omitted from the quotation — the relevance of Serlo’s assertion is undeniable. In a world awash in silly and insipid things, it becomes ever easier for our spirits to become deadened to the beauty and creativity surrounding us: both that contained in past tradition and that which arises from our present lives.
Presidio La Bahia, Goliad, Texas
Any woman who calls the weeks before Christmas the Interminable Season of Holy Obligation either is joking, or has a surfeit of sugarplums dancing in her head. When one of my friends coined the phrase, she wasn’t joking.
Her head begins filling with Christmas visions around mid-September. Knowing she has only three months to achieve holiday perfection, she throws herself into a veritable orgy of planning, listing, and scheduling. Buying gifts, sending cards, selecting menus, and baking cookies fill the days and weeks. If she dares moan that she has too much to do, her husband always offers his same, mild suggestion: that she not do so much.
That, of course, is impossible. Christmas is coming — in three months, two months, five weeks, three weeks — and when it arrives, there will be no fallen soufflé, no forgotten batteries, no unfortunately-colored sweater: not if she has anything to do with it. And, it must be noted, there will be very few surprises. Continue reading
To my parents’ chagrin, I was a climber. Long before I walked across a room, I was climbing stairs. I clambered over picket fences as easily as those woven from wire. After I scaled Mt. Refrigerator, on a quest to reach the chocolate chips hidden away in the highest cupboard in the house, Mother laid down the law. If I wanted to climb, I would do it outside, in the trees.
No doubt she knew the maples in our front yard were too large for me to climb, just as the crabapples were too small, and the elms too brittle. But a cherry tree in the back yard turned out to be just right, with strong lower branches, and a sandbox nearby to use as a ladder. An agreement was reached. Once the fruit had been picked, I was free to scramble up as high as I could go, until branches began to snap. Then, I promised to retreat to a more secure spot. Continue reading
Given an opportunity to read Graham Greene on the veranda of the City Hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone, I found it impossible to resist. What better place to take up a battered, second-hand copy of The Heart of the Matter and indulge in a bit of literary romanticism?
Greene, who spent time in Freetown both as a traveler and as a British intelligence officer during WWII, drew on his experiences at the hotel in a variety of ways. In Journey Without Maps, an account of his month-long foot trek through Liberia in 1935, he described a place and a way of life still recognizable forty years later.
Uncle Henry’s was a fine place to celebrate a first year of writing.
Tucked between Yazoo Pass and the Mississippi River, just north of Clarksdale and a little south of the Helena bridge, it sat alongside Moon Lake, an oxbow good for fishing, if not for navigation and commerce.
Across the road from the lake, Uncle Henry’s provided its guests with a spacious gallery, a west-facing view perfect for sunset-watching, no scheduled activities, and plenty of solitude — perhaps its greatest virtue. Not every lodging encourages just sitting and thinking, those necessary components of the creative process. Uncle Henry’s did.
While robins stitched their song through branches of dogwood and azalea and morning flared out across the sky, I was more than happy to sit and think, particularly about the nature of persistence, and how quickly a year can flee down corridors of time. Continue reading
Arrayed across the page, the words evoke memories, pluck at threads of emotion as though determined to unravel their mystery.
If you do not believe in the ginn, you have only to look at the heavens for proof. That “shooting star”, as you call it, what is it but the stone thrown by one of the angels in heaven when an evil ginn approaches too near in order to try to overhear the conversation of Paradise and thus learn the secrets of the future?
Another custom is the way they mark one of those pauses in conversation which in England is sometimes denoted by the declaration that “an angel is passing”. After a moment of dead silence, one of the company will say, “Wahed dhu!” (“God is One”), and the whole company in a low murmur will repeat, “La ilah ilia Allah!” (“There is no God but one God”), and conversation will be resumed.
I made a note of all the proverbs I heard in these talks, for all conversation in the East is enriched with unending proverbs, as with a wonderful power of expression in poetic form and idiom.
Reading on in S.H. Leeder’s Veiled Mysteries of Egypt and the Religion of Islam, I realize I’ve encountered source material for Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The diplomat Mountolive, whose name provides the title for the third volume of Durrell’s series, reflects on the customs of Egypt using remarkably similar language. Continue reading
After months of struggle, The Little Essay That Could finally started its engines, cut loose the string of cars that had been carrying the freight of an idea that didn’t belong and began chugging its way up the hill toward publication. It had been left on a siding, bereft and forlorn, condemned to idleness by my own obstinancy, my stubborn insistence that two thematic strands should remain entwined in a single essay. Only after I pulled them apart, discarding one, was the storyline able to get going and pick up a little steam.
Ironically, just as I began working again on my simplified piece, sighing and moaning to myself that things ought to be progressing more quickly, I came across news of Harper Lee and her former literary agent, Samuel Pinkus. Lee recently filed suit in Manhattan federal court seeking to recover royalties from from the sale of her novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. According to Associated Press reports, Lee was contending that Pinkus had tricked her into signing over the copyright to her novel while she was recovering from a stroke. Continue reading