Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Will Durant

“Let us play…”

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Will Durant

Happiness is the free play of the instincts, and so is youth. For the majority of us it is the only period of life in which we live; most men of forty are but a reminiscence, the burnt-out ashes of what was once a flame. The tragedy of life is that it gives us wisdom only when it has stolen youth. Si jeunesse savait, et vieillesse pouvait—”If youth knew how, and old age could!”

Health lies in action, and so it graces youth. To be busy is the secret of grace, and half the secret of content. Let us ask the gods not for possessions, but for things to do; happiness is in making things rather than in consuming them. In Utopia, said Thoreau, each would build his own home; and then song would come back to the heart of man, as it comes to the bird when it builds its nest. If we cannot build our homes, we can at least walk and throw and run; and we should never be so old as merely to watch games instead of playing them. Let us play is as good as Let us pray, and the results are more assured.

Will Durant, Fallen Leaves

Written by nevalalee

November 26, 2015 at 7:30 am

The way of the cow and hen

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H.L. Mencken

You ask me, in brief, what satisfaction I get out of life, and why I go on working. I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs. There is in every living creature an obscure but powerful impulse to active functioning. Life demands to be lived. Inaction, save as a measure of recuperation between bursts of activity, is painful and dangerous to the healthy organism—in fact, it is almost impossible. Only the dying can be really idle.

The precise form of an individual’s activity is determined, of course, by the equipment with which he came into the world. In other words, it is determined by his heredity. I do not lay eggs, as a hen does, because I was born without any equipment for it. For the same reason I do not get myself elected to Congress, or play the violoncello, or teach metaphysics in a college, or work in a steel mill. What I do is simply what lies easiest to my hand. It happens that I was born with an intense and insatiable interest in ideas, and thus like to play with them. It happens also that I was born with rather more than the average facility for putting them into words. In consequence, I am a writer and editor, which is to say, a dealer in them and concoctor of them.

There is very little conscious volition in all this. What I do was ordained by the inscrutable fates, not chosen by me. In my boyhood, yielding to a powerful but still subordinate interest in exact facts, I wanted to be a chemist, and at the same time my poor father tried to make me a business man. At other times, like any other relatively poor man, I have longed to make a lot of money by some easy swindle. But I became a writer all the same, and shall remain one until the end of the chapter, just as a cow goes on giving milk all her life, even though what appears to be her self-interest urges her to give gin.

I am far luckier than most men, for I have been able since boyhood to make a good living doing precisely what I have wanted to do—what I would have done for nothing, and very gladly, if there had been no reward for it. Not many men, I believe, are so fortunate. Millions of them have to make their livings at tasks which really do not interest them. As for me, I have had an extraordinarily pleasant life, despite the fact that I have had the usual share of woes. For in the midst of these woes I still enjoyed the immense satisfaction which goes with free activity. I have done, in the main, exactly what I wanted to do. Its possible effects on other people have interested me very little. I have not written and published to please other people, but to satisfy myself, just as a cow gives milk, not to profit the dairyman, but to satisfy herself. I like to think that most of my ideas have been sound ones, but I really don’t care. The world may take them or leave them. I have had my fun hatching them.

H.L. Mencken, in a letter to Will Durant

Written by nevalalee

May 10, 2014 at 9:00 am

The Book of Dreams

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Not surprisingly, I went back to the Newberry Library Book Fair. In fact, I went back three times, determined, for whatever reason, to squeeze every last drop out of this particular sale. Along with the finds I mentioned last week, I emerged with a copy of the original edition of Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, its pages still uncut, famous as the primary source for T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land; John Canemaker’s Before the Animation Begins: The Art and Lives of Disney Inspirational Sketch Artists; Jack Woodford’s amazing book Plotting, about which I hope to have a great deal to say later on; wonderfully musty books on The Art of Play Production and Everybody’s Theatre, the last of which turns out to involve puppets; my two missing volumes of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, Our Oriental Heritage and The Reformation; Technique in Fiction by the editors of The Kenyon Review; Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Human Development; Leslie A. Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel; and studies of two of literature’s great magicians, T.H. White and Alexander Pope. Total cost? Something like thirty dollars.

But my real prize was a book, or rather a set of books, that I’ve wanted for a long time. I first saw them in a box under a table at the book fair on Thursday, but I held back until Sunday, when I knew everything would be half price. In fact, there were three different editions on sale, one in twenty-nine small volumes, one in soft leather covers, one in sixteen big tomes. When I came back yesterday to claim my haul, the first two sets were gone, but the third was still there, in two enormous boxes. I lugged them over to the squirreling area and managed, with some help, to get them downstairs to the cashier and loading dock. A few minutes later, they were in the trunk of my car. And now they’re on my bookshelves, although it took a bit of rearranging to find room for them all. They’re big, cumbersome, not especially convenient to read—almost too heavy for the average reader’s lap—but to my eyes, they’re beautiful, even awe-inspiring. They’re the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Regular readers will know how much this encyclopedia means to me, but even I was unprepared for the level of rapture that followed. I spent at least three or four hours yesterday just turning the pages, marveling at the riches on display. This edition, which is generally considered to be the greatest encyclopedia of all time, was first published in 1911, with supplementary volumes bringing it up to date through 1922, and what I’ve found is that the gain in accuracy in more recent versions isn’t nearly as meaningful as the loss of material. This edition of the Britannica isn’t so much a reference book as a Borgesian universal library, an attempt to get everything in. The article on “Horses,” for instance, spends sixteen dense pages on their anatomy, history, and management, only to conclude with the sentence: “Overhead hay-racks are unnatural and are liable to drop seeds into a horse’s eye.” Every article of any length is crammed with opinion, common sense, prejudice, and personality. It’s the best book I’ve ever seen.

It takes a while to get used to the Eleventh Edition. There are very few conventional cross-references, so for those of us who have been spoiled by hyperlinks, finding a particular piece of information can be something of a treasure hunt, especially if you refuse to use the index. (For example, I had a hard time finding an entry on the modern Olympic Games: there wasn’t one under “Olympiad” or “Olympia” or “Games, Classical,” and I nearly gave up entirely before finding a column or two under “Athletic Sports.”) But then, this isn’t really an encyclopedia for casual reference—although I expect that it will become my first stop for information on any major subject from now on—but a book for dreaming. And while all this material is available online, the best way to experience it is as a long, deep dive, preferably in a comfortable armchair. Each volume casts an uncanny spell, as you find yourself going from “Dante” to “Dragon” to “Drama” to “Dredging,” with a stop for “Dream” somewhere along the way. I’m off to take another dive now. If I don’t come up again, you’ll know where to find me.

Let us now forget famous men

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“More books have been written about [Lincoln] than any figure in human history, with the possible exception of Jesus Christ.”

The photo above was taken three years ago by my then girlfriend, now wife, at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. I didn’t get to go, alas—I was living in New York at the time—but the museum, as I was endlessly informed over the next few days, is tons of fun, with elaborate dioramas of the White House, Ford’s Theater, and other family-friendly attractions, including life-size figures of the entire Lincoln clan. When I saw the text of the plaque above, though, I was outraged, for reasons that might seem hard to understand at first. Here’s my verbatim response, at least as well as I can remember: “What about Napoleon?” I demanded. “What about Napoleon?”

You see, I like Napoleon. I like him a lot. Twenty or so books about Napoleon line my shelves, and I’m always on the lookout for more, the older and more adulatory, the better. Why? Emerson’s essay from Representative Men provides a decent starting point, but the short answer is that Napoleon is the most fascinating person I know in world history—”among the most perceptive, penetrating, retentive, and logical minds ever seen in one who was predominantly a man of action,” as Will Durant nicely puts it. He’s the foremost figure of Western history, a man who, for all his flaws, embodies more than any other individual the limits of human energy, intelligence, and ambition. And I was pretty sure that more books had been written about him than anyone else, including Lincoln.

And yet here’s the thing. Napoleon came from almost nothing, and became emperor of Europe. At his coronation, he took the crown out of the Pope’s hands and placed it on his own head. He was, by almost any measure, the most purely productive human being who ever lived. But these days, all that most people could say about Napoleon, if they recognized the name at all, was that he was a short little guy with a funny hat. (Not that short, by the way: he was 5 feet, 7 inches, or roughly the height of Tom Cruise.) That’s what time does: it reduces even the most monumental figures into caricatures of themselves. Two centuries is all it took to turn the leading light of Western civilization to Ian Holm in Time Bandits. It will happen to Lincoln, too, if it hasn’t already happened.

Napoleon, of course, isn’t alone. I was recently reminded of this whole kerfuffle while reading Dean Simonton’s Origins of Genius, inspired by the Malcolm Gladwell article I mentioned last week. Simonton mentions the work of the psychologist James McKeen Cattell, who, back in 1903, made one of the first systematic attempts to rank the thousand most eminent men in history—there were hardly any women on his list—by toting up mentions in major biographical dictionaries and tabulating the results. Here’s his top hundred:

Napoleon, Shakespeare, Mohammed, Voltaire, Bacon, Aristotle, Goethe, Julius Caesar, Luther, Plato, Napoleon III, Burke, Homer, Newton, Cicero, Milton, Alexander the Great, Pitt, Washington, Augustus, Wellington, Raphael, Descartes, Columbus, Confucius, Penn, Scott, Michelangelo, Socrates, Byron, Cromwell, Gautama, Kant, Leibnitz, Locke, Demosthenes, Mary Stuart [the only woman on the list], Calvin, Moliere, Lincoln, Louis Philippe, Dante, Rousseau, Nero, Franklin, Galileo, Johnson, Robespierre, Frederick the Great, Aurelius, Hegel, Petrarch, Horace, Charles V (Germany), Mirabeau, Erasmus, Virgil, Hume, Guizot, Gibbon, Pascal, Bossuet, Hobbes, Swift, Thiers, Louis XIV, Wordsworth, Louis XVI, Nelson, Henry VIII, Addison, Thucydides, Fox, Racine, Schiller, Henry IV (France), W. Herschel, Tasso, Jefferson, Ptolemy, Claudius, Augustine, Pope, Machiavelli, Swedenborg, Philip II, Leonardo da Vinci, George III, Julian, Pythagoras, Macaulay, Rubens, Burns, Mozart, Humboldt, Comte, Cousin, Cuvier, Justinian, Euripides, Camoens.

Now, much of this list remains unimpeachable. The top ten, in particular, would presumably be very similar today, though Bacon would probably give place to Newton, and we’d need to find room for Einstein and, yes, Lincoln. (Also, hopefully, for some women. The only other women, besides Mary Queen of Scots, to make Cattell’s top two hundred were Elizabeth and Joan of Arc, although, at this rate, it’s only a matter of time before we see Sarah Palin.) But with all due respect to my French readers, when I see names like Guizot, Bossuet, Thiers, Comte, and Cousin, among others, my only response is a blank stare. And this is coming from someone who loves Napoleon.

All in all, though, Cattell’s list reminds us how quickly even major reputations can fade. (For an even more sobering reminder, look no further than the bottom of his top thousand. Fauriel, Enfantin, Babeuf, anyone?) And I have no doubt that a contemporary list of the top hundred figures in history, like this one, will look equally strange to a reader a century from now. Just because you made the list once, it seems, doesn’t mean you’ll stay there.

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