Emerson on Books

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Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.

I had better never see a book than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system. – Ralph Waldo Emerson


Will Durant’s history books

I’m nearly finished reading Caesar and Christ, Part III in the estimable Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization. It’s what he termed “synthetic history, which studies all major phases of a people’s life, work and culture in their simultaneous operation.”

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“We shall learn more about the nature of man by watching his behavior through sixty centuries than by reading Plato and Aristotle, Spinoza and Kant,” he said.  Durant agreed with Nietzsche, “All philosophy has now fallen forfeit to history.”

Durant’s magisterial history (11 volumes) is measured, movingly written and full of distilled wisdom, drawn from the lessons of people’s actions and words, and Durant’s determination to put events in proper context. Above all, he is wise and pragmatic and he sees humankind whole, both the weaknesses and strengths. Written with his wife, Ariel, the books were published between 1935 and 1975, and are an essential read for a seasoned overview of world history.

 Here are some gleanings from Caesar and Christ:

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“What increases with civilization is not so much immorality of intent as opportunity of expression.”

 “The older Romans used temples as their banks, as we use banks as our temples.”

 “News reached [a Roman] when it was old, so that his passions could not be stirred everyday by the gathered turmoil of the world.”

 “…who could punish robbery among his fellows when half the members of the Senate had joined it violating treaties, robbing allies and despoiling provinces. “He who steals from a citizen,” said Cato, “ends his days in fetters and chains, but he who steals from the community ends them in purple and gold [robes].”

 “From the moral standpoint, which is always a window dressing in international politics, …”

 “Men begin by seeking happiness and are content at last with peace.”

 “…in philosophy all truth is old, and only error is original.”

 “Around the immoral hub of any society is a spreading wheel of wholesome life, in which the threads of tradition, the moral imperatives of religion, the economic compulsions of the family, the instinctive love and care of children…suffice to keep us publicly decent and moderately sane.”

 


New member of the household

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Melville’s rightness

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Greek Architecture
Herman Melville

Not magnitude, not lavishness,
But Form—the Site;
Not innovating wilfulness,
But reverence for the Archetype.

I just finished Moby Dick for the second time. A hybrid, genius work way ahead of its time, combining a nonfiction, direct address to the reader and narrative fiction, in short a swirl and swerve that follows Melville’s daemon to tell his tale like no other, which he did. By the end, he’s understandably exhausted. But we have been told in a new, pre-modern archetype.


My aunt’s painting

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This painting, by Ava Milner Hamm,  is one of my earliest memories, a landscape of country that starts west of Fort Worth. The painting was always in the two houses where I grew up. I have lived with it in sight (or memory) for all of my life. It always tells me I’m home.


Harrison writes about Red Pine

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Red Pine, Stonehouse and Gary Snyder are mentioned in Jim Harrison’s new trilogy of novellas that was just released, The Ancient Minstrel:

“After attending and giving at least a hundred poetry readings he could remember only one that struck him as a hundred percent genuine and honest. A poet named, simply enough, Red Pine read from an ancient Chinese poet he had translated, called Stonehouse. Red Pine read with quiet integrity just what he translated. Usually after a reading he was in a private snit and needed a drink, but now he walked down and looked at the harbor, his spine still tingling. The other true exception was Gary Snyder. He never wanted Snyder’s readings to end.”


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Photograph by Alex Markovich

 

 

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