Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Squelch. "How pleasing that such profound prattle should inevitably find its way into print! 'Not precisely a symphony in white... for there is a yellowish dress.. brown hair, etc... another with reddish hair... and of course there is the flesh colour of the complexions.'
"Bon Dieu! did this wise person expect white hair and chalked faces? And does he then, in his astounding consequence, believe that a symphony in F contains no other note, but shall be a continued repetition of F, F, F? ...Fool!" - James McNeill Whistler, in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, responding to a review of his painting "Symphony in White No. III" in the Saturday Review.
[The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, by James McNeill Whistler, Heinemann, 1890. Consists mostly of cuttings from Whistler's critics, followed by the slashings he sent in response. Lots of pettiness, lots of random French phrases, lots of English that doesn't make actual sense (or at least not now), but enough venom and penetration to remain addictive.]

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Obvious but useful. "Like many at the time, he chose to overlook what is clear to anyone who has spent time with the mentally ill - the extraordinary pain involved. To find authenticity in the signs of madness is like finding a desirable simplicity in poverty; only those not obliged to experience either can afford such intellectual slackness." - Jenny Diski, in Don't, on R.D. Laing.
[Don't, by Jenny Diski, Granta, 1998. Sauntering, polished essays which turn out to improve on collection. The subtexts line up; the jokes, mostly, don't repeat. I wonder how much editing that took her.]

Gut politics. "Mr. Polly's system, like a confused and ill-governed democracy, had been brought to a state of perpetual clamour and disorder, demanding now evil and unsuitable internal satisfactions such as pickles and vinegar and the crackling on pork, and now vindictive external expression, such as war and bloodshed throughout the world." - H.G. Wells, The History of Mr. Polly.
This restates an earlier, purpler passage in which Mr. Polly's stomach is "like a badly managed industrial city during a period of depression; agitators, acts of violence, strikes, the forces of law and order doing their best, rushings to and fro, upheavals, the Marseillaise, tumbrils, the rumble and thunder of the tumbrils"; but the substitution of 'democracy' for 'city', and the closeness of bad food to world war, probably brings you nearer what Wells wanted you to think.
[The History of Mr. Polly, by H. G. Wells, 1910. Will never be fashionable again. Read it anyway.]

Monday, February 02, 2004

Max Beerbohm considered as a yoof columnist. "Shortly after Max's success with his Works, Harmsworth put at his disposal a column in the Daily Mail. Max came on board in December 1896 and had carte blanche to write about anything he wished - fire brigades, sign-boards, knighthoods. The pieces all had the kind of smart-alecky hook Harmsworth liked. 'What I want ever morning in the paper,' Harmsworth said, 'is something new and strange.'" - N. John Hall, Max Beerbohm: A kind of a life.
To translate: Beerbohm was hired by the first modern British newspaper baron as a means of exploiting the decadence craze. He was chosen to write look-at-me comment on subjects which he was unqualified to discuss, except as a representative of a certain kind of young person. This should be sounding familiar. It may be of comfort to Bidisha, Johann Hari et al that he went on to be one of the most admired personal essayists in English.
[Max Beerbohm: A kind of a life, by N. John Hall, Yale 2002. Written in a glaringly first-person style as a tribute to its subject, and an excellent demonstation of how hard that style is to master.]