Monday, 30 July 2007

The Pale Art of Imitation

From Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire comes the following delightful extract concerning the power of the ancients:
The authority of Plato and Aristotle, of Zeno and Epicurus, still reigned in the schools; and their systems, transmitted with blind deference from one generation of disciples to another, precluded every generous attempt to exercise the powers, or enlarge the limits, of the human mind. The beauties of the poets and orators, instead of kindling a fire like their own, inspired only cold and servile imitations: or if any ventured to deviate from these models, they deviated at the same time from good sense and propriety. On the revival of letters, the youthful vigour of the imagination, after a long repose, national emulation, a new religion, new languages, and a new world, called forth the genius of Europe. But the provincials of Rome, trained by a uniform artificial foreign education, were engaged in a very unequal competition with those bold ancients, who, by expressing their genuine feelings in their native tongue, had already occupied every place of honour. The name of Poet was almost forgotten; that of Orator was usurped by the sophists. A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Pierre Menard's Translations

For the Borges heads, here comes this interesting piece of trivia from George Steiner's After Babel:
The latter's masterpiece [Menard's], of course, was to consist 'of the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two'. (How many readers of Borges have observed that Chapter IX turns on a translation from Arabic into Castilian, that there is a labyrinth in XXXVIII, and that chapter XXII contains a literalist equivocation, in the purest Kabbalistic vein, on the fact that the word no has the same number of letters as the word ?)

Monday, 23 July 2007


I thank George Steiner for introducing me to the word moromancy in his book, After Babel, which means "a foolish divination".

Friday, 13 July 2007

Montaigne Against Empty Learning

In Montaigne's essay, On the Education of Children, is found the following anecdote against prolixity and empty formalities:
The Samian ambassadors had come to Cleomenes, King of Sparta, prepared with a fine long speech urging him to declare war against the tyrant Polycrates. After hearing them to the end, the Spartan King gave them their answer: 'As for your introduction and exordium, I no longer remember them, or the middle of your speech either; and as for your conclusion, I will do nothing of the sort.'

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Nicaraguan Cuba

I was reminded of the naivete of Cubans when reading the following excerpt from Rushdie's The Jaguar Smile, which has as its subject matter the author's time in Sandinistan Nicaragua:
Later, one of the interpreters asked me a breathtaking question: 'What's a labour camp?'

'What's a labour camp?' I echoed, disbelievingly.

'Oh, I can see what you're trying to say it is,' she said. 'Something like a concentration camp. But are you really saying they have such things in the Soviet Union?'

'Um,' I stumbled, 'well, yes.'

'But how can it be?' she asked in obvious distress. 'The USSR is so helpful to third world countries. How can it be doing things like this?'

There is a kind of innocence abroad in Nicaragua. One of the problems with the romance of the word 'revolution' is that it can carry with it a sort of blanket approval of all self-professed revolutionary movement. Donaldo Altamirano told me how deeply he felt in solidarity with the Provisional IRA.