If one is an individual at all it is by reason of his uniqueness. Whatever the material which vitally aflfected the form of our culture, each man must decide for himself which elements of it are to enter into and shape his own private destiny. The great works which are singled out by the professorial minds represent their choice exclusively. It is in the nature of such intellects to beheve that they are our appointed guides and mentors. It may be that, if left to our own devices, we would in time share their point of view. But the surest way to defeat such an end is to promulgate the reading of select lists of books — the so-called founda- tion stones.
A man should begin with his own times. He should become acquainted first of all with the world in which he is Uving and participating. He should not be afraid of reading too much or too Uttle. He should take his reading as he docs his food or his exercise. The good reader will gravitate to the good books. He will discover firom his contemporaries what is inspiring or fecundating, or merely enjoyable, in past Hterature. He should have the pleasure of making these discoveries on his own, in his own way. What has worth, charm, beauty, wisdom, cannot be lost or forgotten.
But things can lose all value, all charm and appeal, if one is dragged to them by the scalp. Have you not noticed, after many heart-aches and disillusionments, that in recommending a book to a friend the less said the better i The moment you praise a book too highly you awaken resistance in your listener. One has to know when to give the dose and how much — and if it is to be repeated or not.
The same sort of strategy might well be applied where the reading of books is concerned. Discourage a man in the right way, that is, with the right end in view, and you will put him on the path that much more quickly. The important thing is not which books, which experiences, a man is to have, but what he puts into them of his own. One of the most mysterious of all the intangibles in Hfe is what we call influences.
Undoubtedly influences come under the law of attraction. But it should be borne in mind that when we are pulled in a certain direction it is also because we pushed in that direction, perhaps without knowing it. It is obvious that we are not at the mercy of any and every influence. Nor are we always cogni- zant of the forces and factors which influence us from one period to another. Some men never know themselves or what motivates their behavior.watch
The Handbook to Gothic Literature
Most men, in fact. With others the sense of destiny is so clear, so strong, that there hardly seems to be any choice : they 1 create the influences needed to fulfill their ends. I use the word i " create " deHberately, because in certain startling instances the j individual has literally been obUged to create the necessary influences.
My reason for introducing such an abstruse element is that, where books are concerned, just as with friends, lovers, adventures and discoveries, all is inextricably mixed. The desire to read a book is often provoked by the most unexpected incident. To begin with, everything that happens to a man is of a piece. The books he chooses to read are no exception. He may not have read them if he detested this aunt. Of the thousands of. The books a man reads are determined by what a man is.
If a man be left alone in a room with a book, a single book, it does not follow that he will read it because he has nothing better to do. If the book bores him he will drop it, though he may go well- nigh mad for want of anything better to do. Some men, in reading, take the pains to look up every reference given in the foomotes ; others again never even glance at footnotes.
The adventures and discoveries of Nicholas Flamel in connec- tion with the Book of Abraham the Jew constitute one of the golden pages in literature. As I was saying, the chance remark of a friend, an unexpected encounter, a footnote, illness, solitude, strange quirks of memory, a thousand and one things can set one off in pursuit of a book. There are times when one is susceptible to any and all suggestions, hints, intimations. And there are times again when it takes dynamite to put one afoot and astir. One of the great temptations, for a writer, is to read when engaged in the writing of a book.
With me it seems that the moment I begin a new book I develop a passion for reading too. In fact, due to some perverse instinct, the moment I am launched on a new book I itch to do a thousand different things — not, as is often the case, out of a desire to escape the task of writing. What I fmd is that I can write and do other things. When the creative urge seizes one — at least, such is my experience — one becomes creative in all directions at once.
It was in the days before I undertook to write, I must confess, that reading was at once the most voluptuous and the most pernicious of pastimes. Looking backward, it seems to me as if the reading of books was nothing more than a narcotic, stimulating at first but depressing and paralyzing afterwards. From the time I began in earnest to write, the reading habit altered. A new element crept into it. A fecundating element, I might say. As a young man I often thought, on putting a book down, that I could have done much better myself The more I read the more critical I became.
Hardly anything was good enough for me. Gradually I began to despise books — and authors too. Often the writers I had most adored were the ones I castigated mercilessly. There was always a fringe of authors, to be sure, whose magic powers baffled and eluded me. I read cold- bloodedly, with all the powers of analysis I possessed. In order, bcHeve it or not, to rob them of their secret. Yes, I was then naive enough to beUcve that I could discover what makes the clock tick by taking it apart.
I learned something about style, about the art of narration, about effects and how they are produced. Best of all, I learned that there really is a mystery involved in the creation of good books. To say, for example, that the style is the man, is to say almost nothing. Even when we have the man we have next to nothing. The way a man writes, the way he speaks, the way he walks, the way he does everything, is unique and inscrutable.
The important thing, so obvious that one usually overlooks it, is not to wonder about such matters but to listen to what a man has to say, to let his words move you, alter you, make you more and more what you truly are. The most important factor in the appreciation of any art is the practice of it. In reading Van Gogh's letters to his brother, one is struck by the vast amount of meditation, analysis, comparison, adoration and criticism he indulged in during the course of his brief and frenzied career as a painter.
It is not uncommon, among painters, but in Van Gogh's case it reaches heroic proportions. Van Gogh was not only looking at nature, people, objects, but at other men's canvases, studying their methods, techniques, styles and approaches. He reflected long and earnestly on what he observed, and these thoughts and observations penetrated his work. He was anything but a primitive, or a " fauve. It happens that Van Gogh, without having any literary pretensions whatever, wrote one of the great books of our time, and without knowing that he was writing a book.
His life, as we get it in the letters, is more revelatory, more moving, more a work of art, I would say, than are most of the famous autobiographies or autobiographical novels. He tells us unreservedly of his struggles and sorrows, withholding nothing. His life, in that it makes clear the value and the meaning of dedication, is a lesson for all time. Van Gogh is at one and the same time — and of how few men can we say this!
He may have been obsessed, or possessed rather, but he was not a fanatic working in the dark. He possessed, for one thing, that rare faculty of being able to criticize and judge his own work. He proved, indeed, to be a much better critic and judge than those whose business it unfortunately is to criticize, judge and condemn.
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The more I write the more tolerant I grow , with regard to my fellow writers. I am not including " bad " writers, for with them I refuse to have any traffic. But with those who are sincere, with those who are honestly struggling to express themselves, I am much more lenient and understanding than in the days when I had not yet written a book. I can learn from the poorest writer, provided he has done his utmost. Indeed, I have learned a very great deal from certain " poor " writers. In reading their works I have been struck time and again by that freedom and boldness which it is almost impossible to recapture once one is " in harness," once one is aware of the laws and limitations of his medium.
But it is in reading one's favorite authors that one becomes supremely aware of the value of practicing the art of writing. One reads then with the right and the left eye. Without the least diminution of the sheer enjoyment of reading, one becomes aware of a marvellous heightening of conscioumess. In reading these men the element of the mysterious never recedes, but the vessel in which their thoughts are contained becomes more and more transparent.
Drunk with ecstasy, one returns to his own work revivified. Criticism is con- verted into reverence. One begins to pray as one never prayed before. One no longer prays for oneself but for Brother Giono, Brother Cendrars, Brother Celine — for the whole galaxy of fellow authors, in fact.
One accepts the uniqueness of his fellow artist imreservedly, realizing that it is only through one's uniqueness that one asserts his commonness. One no longer asks for something different of his beloved author but for more of the same. Even the ordinary reader testifies to this longing. What gratitude for even the tiniest posthumous fragment! Even the perusal of an author's expense account gives us a thrill. The moment a writer dies his Hfe suddenly becomes of momentous interest to us.
His death often enables us to see what we could not sec when he was aUve — that his Hfe and work were one. Is it not obvious that the art of resuscitation biography masks a profound hope and longing? We are not content to let Balzac, Dickens, Dostoievsky remain immortal in their works — we want to restore them in the flesh.
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Sometimes it seems as though the influence of the dead were more potent than the influence of the living. If the Saviour had not been resurrected, man would certainly have resurrected Him through grief and longing. They were alive and they spoke to me! That is the simplest and most eloquent way in which I can refer to those authors who have remained with me over the years.
Is this not a strange thing to say, considering that we are dealing, in books, with signs and symbols i Just as no artist has ever succeeded in rendering nature on canvas, so no author has ever truly been able to give us his Hfe and thoughts. Autobiography is the purest romance. Fiction is always closer to reaHty than fact. The fable is not the essence of worldly wisdom but the bitter sheU. One might go on, through aU the ranks and divisions of Hterature, unmasking history, exposing the myths of science, devaluating aesthetics.
Nothing, on deep analysis, proves to be what it seems or purports to be. Man continues to hunger. Is it not strange to understand and enjoy what is incommunicable? Man is not communicating with man through words, he is communing with his feUow man and with his Maker. Over and over again one puts down a book and one is speechless.
Sometimes it is because the author seems " to have said everything. It is from the silence that words are drawn, and it is to the silence that they return, if properly used. In the interval something inexpHcable takes place : a man who is dead, let us say, resuscitates himself, takes possession of you, and in departing leaves you thoroughly altered. He did this by means of signs and symbols. Was this not magic which he possessed — perhaps still possesses? Though we know it not, we do possess the key to paradise. Wc talk a great deal about understanding and communicating, not only with our fellow man but with the dead, with the imbom, with those who inhabit other realms, other universes.
We believe that there are mighty secrets to be unlocked. We hope that science will poillt the way, or if not, religion. We dream of a Hfe in the distant future which will be utterly different from the one we now know ; we invest ourselves with powers unnameable. Yet the writers of books have ever given evidence not only of magical powers but of the existence of universes which infringe and invade our own Httle universe and which are as famiUar to us as though we had visited them in the flesh.
These men had no " occult " masters to initiate diem. They sprang from parents similar to our own, they were the products of environments similar to our own. What makes them stand apart then? Not the use of imagination, for men in other walks of Hfe have displayed equally great powers of imagination.
Not the mastery of a technique, for other artists practice equally difficult techniques. No, to me the cardinal fact about a writer is his abihty to " exploit " the vast silence which enwraps us all. Of all artists he is the one who best knows that " in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Pretending to communicate with his fellow creatures, he has unwittingly taught us to commune with the Creator.
Using language as his instrument, he demonstrates that it is not language at all but prayer.
BOOK II.—OF THE HINDUS.
A very special kind of prayer, too, since nothing is demanded of the Creator. Here on eartli they may have been practicing. There they are perfecting their song. Our future Ues in Universality, not won by violence, but by the strength derived from our great ideal — the reuniting of all mankind. Hamsun, as I have often said, is one of the authors who vitally affected me as writer.
None of his books intrigued me as much as Mysteries. In that period I spoke of earher, when I began to take my favorite authors apart in order to discover their secret power of enchantment, the men I concentrated on were Hamsun first of all, then Arthur Machen, then Thomas Mann. When I came to reread The Birth of Tragedy I remember being positively stunned by Nietzsche's magical use of language. Only a few years ago, thanks to Eva SikeHanou, I became intoxicated once again with this extraordinary book.
I mentioned Thomas Mann. But it was Mann's skill as a writer of short stories, or novelettes, which most intrigued and baffled mc during the " analytical " period I speak of At that time Death in Venice was for me the supreme short story. In the space of a few years, however, my opinion of Thomas Mann, and especially of his Death in Venice, altered radically. It is a curious tale and perhaps worth recounting. It was like this. During my early days in Paris I made the acquaintance of a most engaging and provocative individual whom I beHeved to be a genius.
John Nichols was his name. He was a painter. Like so many Irishmen, he also possessed the gift of gab.
It was a privilege to listen to him, whether he were discussing painting, Hterature, music, or talking sheer nonsense. He had a flair for invective, and, when he waxed strong, his tongue was vitrioHc. One day I happened to speak of my admiration for Thomas Mann and, before long, I found myself raving about Death in Venice. Nichols responded with jeers and contempt. He admitted he had never read it and thought my proposal an excel- lent one. I shall never forget this experience.
Before I had read three pages Thomas Mann began to crumble. Nichols, mind you, had not said a word. But reading the story aloud, and to a critical ear, suddenly the whole creaking machinery which underlay this fabrication exposed itself. Half- way through I flung the book on the floor. Later on I glanced through The Magic Mountain and Buddenhrooks, works I had regarded as monumental, only to find them equally meretricious.
This sort of experience, I must quickly add, has happened but seldom to me. There was one outstanding one — I blush to mention it! How on earth I had ever managed to find that book " funny " is beyond my comprehension. Yet I had, once. Indeed, I remember that I laughed until the tears came to my eyes. The other day, after a lapse of thirty years, I picked it up and started to read it again. Never have I tasted a shoddier piece of tripe. Another disappointment, though much milder, lay in store for me on rereading The Triumph of the Egg. It came near to being a rotten egg.
What I started to say is that, in rereading, I find more and more that the books I long to read again are the ones I read in childhood and early youth. I mentioned Henty, bless his name! Imagine not having read any of these men since boyhood! It seems incredible. One of these, I recall, was about our great " hero " for a day — Admiral Dewey.
Another was about Admiral Farragut — probably about the battle of Mobile Bay, if there ever was such an engagement. Regarding this book I recall now that, in writing the chapter called " My Dream of Mobile " in The Air-conditioned Nightmare, I was actively aware of this tale of Farragut's heroic exploits. Without a doubt, my whole conception of Mobile was colored by this book I had read fifty years ago.
But it was through the book on Admiral Dewey that I became acquainted with my first Hve hero, who was not Dewey but our sworn enemy, Aguinaldo, the Fihpino rebel. My mother had hung Dewey's portrait, floating above the battleship Maine, over my bed. Aguinaldo, whose likeness is now dim in my mind, links up physically with that strange photograph of Rimbaud taken in Abyssinia, the one wherein he stands in prison-Hke garb on the banks of a stream.
Little did my parents reaHze, in handing me our precious hero. Admiral Dewey, that they were nurturing in me the seeds of a rebel. He was the fu-st Enemy Number One to cross my horizon. I still revere his name, just as I still revere the names of Robert E. Lee and Toussaint L'Ouverture, the great Negro hberator who fought Napoleon's picked men and worsted them. Or Emerson's Representative Men?
And why not make room for another early idol, John Paul Jones? The spectacular story of this man's life is one of those projected books which Cendrars has not yet written and probably never will. The reason is simple. Following the trail of this adventurous American, Cendrars amassed such a wealth of material that he was swamped by it. In the course of his travels, searching for rare documents and buying up rare books relating to John Paul Jones' myriad adventures, Cendrars confessed that he had spent more than tenfold the amount given him by the publishers in advance royalties.
The first person to whom I ventured to read aloud was my grand- father. Not that he encouraged it! I can still hear him saying to my mother that she would regret putting all those books in my hands. He was right. My mother did regret it bitterly, later. It was my own mother, incidentally, whom I can scarcely recall ever seeing with a book in her hand, who told me one day when I was reading The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World that she had read that book years ago herself— in the toilet.
I was flabbergasted. Not that she had admitted to reading in the toilet, but that it should have been that book, of all books, which she had read there. Reading aloud to my boyhood friends, particularly to Joey and Tony, my earhest friends, was an eye-opener for me. I discovered early in hfe what some discover only much later, to their disgust and chagrin, namely, that reading aloud to people can put them to sleep. Either my voice was monotonous, either I read poorly, or the books I chose were the wrong sort. Inevitably my audience went to sleep on me.
Which did not discourage me, incidentally, from continuing the practice. Nor did these experiences alter the opinion I had of my little friends. No, I came quietly to the conclusion that books were not for everyone. I still hold to that view. The last thing on earth I would counsel is to make everyone learn to read. If I had my way, I would first see to it that a boy learned to be a carpenter, a builder, a gardener, a hunter, a fisherman. The practical things first, by all means, then the luxuries.
And books are luxuries. Of course I expect the normal youngster to dance and sing from infancy. And to play games. I would abet these tendencies with might and main. But the reading of books can wait. To play games. Ah, there is a chapter of life in a category all by itself I mean, primarily, out-of-door games — the games which poor children play in the streets of a big city.
I pass up the temptation to expand on this subject lest I write another, very different, kind of book! However, boyhood is a subject I never tire of Neither the remembrance of the wild and glorious games we played by day and night in the streets, nor the characters with whom I hobnobbed and whom I sometimes deified, as boys are prone to do. Time and again, in my writings, I have made mention of the amazing acumen we displayed in discussing the fundamental problems of Hfe. Subjects such as sin, evil, reincarnation, good government, ethics and morality, the nature of the deity, Utopia, life on other planets — these were food and drink to us.
My real education was begun in the street, in empty lots on cold November days, or on street comers at night, frequently with out skates on. Naturally, one of the things we were forever discussing was books, the books we were then reading and which we were not even sup- posed to know about. It sounds extravagont to say so, I know, but it docs seem to me that only the great interpreters of Uterature can rival the boy in the street when it comes to extracting the flavor and essence of a book.
In my humble opinion, the boy is much nearer to understanding Jesus than the priest, much closer to Plato, in his views on government, than the political figures of this world. During this golden period of boyhood there was suddenly injected into my world of books a whole Hbrary, housed in a beautiful walnut bookcase with glass doors and movable shelves, of boys' books.
They were from the collection of an Englishman, Isaac Walker, my father's predecessor, who had the distinction of being one of the first merchant tailors of New York. As I review them now in my mind, these books were all handsomely bound, the titles embossed usually in gold, as were the cover designs. The paper was thick and glossy, the type bold and clear. In short, these books were de luxe in every respect. Indeed, so elegantly forbidding was their appearance, that it took some time before I dared tackle them.
What I am about to relate is a curious thing. It has to do with my deep and mysterious aversion for everything English. I beUeve I am telling the truth when I say that the cause of this antipathy is deeply connected with the reading of Isaac Walker's Httle Hbrary. How profound was my disgust, on becoming acquainted with the contents of these books, may be judged by the fact that I have completely forgotten the titles. Just one lingers in my memory, and even this one I am not positive is correct : A Country Squire.
The rest is a blank. The nature of my reaction I can put in a few words. For the first time in my life I sensed the meaning of melancholy and morbid- ity. All these elegant books seemed wrapped in a veil of thick fog. Not one ray of light issued from these musty tomes. It was the primordial slime, on all levels. Senseless and irrational though it be, this picture of England and the EngHsh lasted well into middle life, until, to be honest, I visited England and had the opportunity of meeting EngHshmen on their own native heath.
When I came to Dickens, these first impressions were, of course, corroborated and strengthened. His books were sombre, terrifying in parts, and usually boring. Of them all, David Copperfield stands out as the most enjoyable, the most nearly human, according to my conception then of the word. Fortunately, there was one book which had been given me by a good aunt,f which served as a corrective to this morose view of England and the English people. I remember distinctly the pleasure this book gave me. There were, to be sure, the Henty books, which I was also read- ing, or had readjust a Httle earHer, and from which I gained a wholly different notion of the English world.
Sombre, tragic, full of mishaps and accidental or coincidental misfortunes, Hardy's books caused me once again to adjust my " human " picture of the world. In the end I was obhged to pass judgment on Hardy. For all the air of realism which permeated his books, I had to admit to myself that they were not " true to life. But this is a book by an Irishman, and an unusual one it is. At any rate, Claude Houghton has done more than any Englishman, with the exception of W.
I have by now read the majority of his works. Whether the performance is good or bad, Claude Houghton's books captivate me. Many Americans know I Am Jonathan Scrivener, which would have made a wonderfiil movie, as would some of his others. It is called Hudson Rejoins the Herd. In a lengthy letter to the author I explained why this seemed to be so.
The outer circumstances were " disguised," but the inner ones were hallucinatingly real. I could not have done better myself For a time I thought that Claude Houghton had in some mysterious way gained access to these facts and events in my life. In the course of our correspondence, however, I soon discovered that all his works are imaginative. Perhaps the reader will be surprised to learn that I should think such a coincidence " mysterious. Of course. But still I am impressed.
Those who think they know me intimately should have a look at this book. And now, for no reason, unless it be the afterglow of boyhood reminiscences, there leaps to mind the name of Rider Haggard. There was a writer who had me in his thrall! The contents of his books are vague and fuzzy. This adolescent period over, it becomes increasingly difficult to strike an author capable of producing an effect anywhere near that created by Rider Haggard's works. For reasons now inscrutable, Trilby came close to doing so. Trilby and Peter Ibbetson are a unique brace of books.
Table of contents
That they should have come from a middle-aged illustrator, renowned for his drawings in " Punch," is more than interesting. I can imagine with dread what Henry James would have made of such a subject. Oddly enough, the man who put me on the track of Du Maurier also put into my hands Flaubert's Botiuard et Pecuchet, which I did not open until thirty years later. He had given this volume and the Sentimental Education to my father in payment of a small debt he owed.
My father, of course, was disgusted. With the Sentimental Education goes a queer association. Somewhere Bernard Shaw says that certain books cannot be appreciated, and should therefore not be read, until one is past fifty. One of those he cited was this famous work of Flaubert. It is another of those books, Hke Tom Jones and Moll Flanders, which I intend one day to read, particularly since I have " come of age.
Strange that a book such as Nadja, by Andr6 Breton, should in any way be linked with the emotional experiences engendered in reading Rider Haggard's works. Each time I read it I go through the same inner turmoil, the same rather terrifyingly deHdous sensation that seizes one, for example, upon finding himself completely disoriented in the pitch blackness of a room with every square inch of which he is thoroughly famiUar.
Perhaps the association is not so far-fetched after aU, considering the peculiar sources from which the Surrealists gathered inspiration, nourishment and corroboration. Nadja is still, to my way of thinking, a unique book. The photos which accompany the text have a value all their own. At any rate, it is one of the few books I have reread several times with no rupture of the original spell. This in itself, I do believe, is sufficient to mark it out.
Many is the time I spent whole days at the pubHc Hbrary looking up words or subjects. Here again, to be truthfiil, I must say that tht most wonderfiil days were passed at home, with my boon companion Joe O'Regan. Bleak, wintry days, when food was scarce and all hope or thought of obtaining employment had vanished. Mingled with the dictionary and encyclopaedia bouts are recollections of other days or nights spent entirely in playing chess or ping pong, or painting water colors which we turned out like monomaniacs.
As usual, one word led to another, for what is the dictionary if not the subtlest fonn of " circuit game " masquerading in the guise of a book i With Joe at my side, Joe the eternal sceptic, a discussion ensued which lasted the entire day and night, the search for more and more definitions never slackening. It was because of Joe O'Regan, who had stimulated me so often to question all that I had blindly accepted, that my first suspicions about the value of the dictionary were aroused.
Prior to this moment I had taken the dictionary for granted, much as one does the Bible. But that day, shifting from derivation to derivation, thereby stumbling upon the most amazing changes in meaning, upon contradictions and reversals of earUer meanings, the whole framework of lexico- graphy began to sHther and slide. In reaching the earUest " origin " of a word I observed that one was up against a stone wall.
Surely it was not possible that the words we were looking up had entered human language at the points indicated! To get back only as far as Sanskrit, Hebrew or Icelandic and what wonderful words stem from the Icelandic! History had been pushed back more than ten thousand years, and here were we, stranded at the vestibule, so to speak, of modem times. That so many words of metaphysical and spiritual connotation, freely employed by the Greeks, had lost all significance was in itself some- thing to give us pause.
To be brief, it soon became apparent that the meaning of a word changed or disappeared entirely, or became the very opposite, according to the time, place, culture of the people using the term. The simple truth that life is what we make it, how we see it with our whole being, and not what is given factually, historically, or statistically, appHes to language too.
The one who seems least to understand this is the philologist. But let me get on — from dictionary to encyclopaedia. It was only natural, in jumping from meaning to meaning, in observing the uses of the words we were tracking down, that for a ftiller, deeper treatment we must have recourse to the encyclo- paedia. The defining process, after all, is one of reference and cross-reference. To know what a specific word means one has to know the words which, so to speak, hedge it in.
And this is probably because the original source is never known. But the encyclopaedia! Ah, there perhaps we would be on firm ground! We would look up subjects, not words. We would discover whence arose these mystifying symbols over which men had fought and bled, tortured and killed one another. But you will never penetrate the mystery! Who, after all, are these pundits entombed in the encyclopaedias i Are they the final authorities?
Decidedly not! The final authority must always be oneself. These wizened pundits have "labored in the field," and they have garnered much wisdom. But it is neither divine wisdom nor even the sum of human wisdom on any subject which they offer us. They have worked Hke ants and beavers, and usually with as Uttle humor and imagination as these humble creatures.
One encyclopaedia selects its authorities, another other authorities. Authorities are always a drug on the market. When you have done with them you know a Uttle about the subject of your quest and a great deal more about things of no account. More often than not you end up in despair, doubt and confusion. If you gain at all, it is in the sharper use of the questioning faculty, that faculty which Spengler extols and which he distinguishes as the chief contribution made him by Nietzsche.
To read the encyclopaedia was like taking a drug —one of those drugs of which they say that it has no evil effects, is non habit-forming. Like the sound, stable, sensible Chinese of old, I think the use of opium preferable. If one wishes to relax, to enjoy surcease from care, to stimulate the imagination — and what could be more conducive to mental, moral and spiritual health? Looking back upon my days in the Hbrary — curious that I do not recall my first visit to a Hbrary!
Often I read at random, whatever book came to hand. Sometimes I buried myself in technical works, or in handbooks, or the " curiosa " of Hterature. There was one shelf in the reading room of the New York 42nd Street Hbrary, I recaU, which was packed with mythologies of many countries, many peoples and which I devoured Hke a starved rat. Some- times, impeUed as if by an ardent mission, I burrowed in nomen- clatures alone. There were other times when it seemed imperative — and indeed it was imperative, so deep was my trance — to study the habits of moles or whales, or the thousand and one varieties of ophidians.
Here I must diverge to make mention of those Httle books which one stumbles on accidentaHy and which, so great is their impact, one esteems above whole rows of encyclopaedias and other compendiums of human knowledge. These books, microcosmic in size but monumental in effect, may be Hkened to precious stones hidden in the bowels of the earth. They are almost as Hmited in number and variety as crystals in nature. I will mention two at random which I came upon much later than the period I speak of but which iUustrate my thought.
It is one of the strangest I know of, though the subject, apocatastasis, is one of the perennial themes of religion and philosophy. One of the freakish things connected with this unique and limited edition of the work is the error in spelling made by the printer. At the top of every page, in bold type, it reads : apocastasis. Something even more freakish, however, something which is apt to give the lovers of Blake the cold shivers, is the reproduction of WiUiam Blake's Hfe mask from the National Portrait Gallery, London which is given on page Return to or toward a previous place or condition ; re-establishment ; complete restoration.
The final restoration to holiness and the favor of God of those who died impenitent. The periodic return of a revolving body to the same point in its orbit. Carcopino Paris, : " Apocatastasis is the word which the Chaldeans had already used to describe the return of the planets, on the celestial sphere, to the points symmetrical to their departure. It is also the word the Greek doctors employed to describe the return of the patient to health. Lawrence with invaluable material for the writing of Apocalypse.
Without knowing, Carter has also given me, through his book, the material and inspiration with which I hope one day to write Draco and the Ecliptic. This, the seal or cap- stone to my " autobiographical novels," as they are called, I trust will prove to be a condensed, transparent, alchemical work, thin as a wafer and absolutely air-tight.
As a philosophy of Hfe it not only holds its own with the bulkier systems of thought propounded by other great figures of the past but, in my mind, surpasses them in every respect. It has one element which wholly sets it apart from other philosophies of hfe — humor. Aside from the celebrated follower of Lao-tse who comes a few centuries later, we do not meet with humor in these lofty regions again until we come to Rabelais.
Rabelais, being a physician as well as a philosopher and imaginative writer, makes humor appear what in truth it is : the great emancipator. But beside the suave, sage, spiritual iconoclast of old China, Rabelais seems Hke an uncouth Crusader. The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps the only short piece of writing which can be compared with Lao-tse's miniature gospel of wisdom and health.
It may be a more spiritual message than Lao-tse's, but I doubt that it contains greater wisdom. It is, of course, utterly devoid of humor. Two Httle books of pure hterature, which belong in a category all their own, to my way of thinking, are Balzac's Seraphita and Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. Seraphita I first read in French, at a period when my French was none too good.
The man who put the book in my hands employed that artful strategy I spoke of earHer : he said almost nothing about the book except that it was a book for me. Coming from him, this was incentive enough. It was indeed a book " for me. I have since, if I may put it thus, " experimented " with it by handing it to people who were not ready to read it. I learned a great deal from these experiments. Seraphita is one of those books, and they are rare indeed, which make their way unaided. Propaganda can do nothing to make it more widely read.
Indeed, its virtue Hes in this, that never at any time will it be effectively read except by a chosen few. It is true that in the beginning of its career it had a wide vogue. Are we not all famiHar with the exclamation of that young Viennese student who, accosting Balzac in the street, begged permission to kiss the hand that wrote Seraphita?
Vogues, however, soon die out, and it is fortimate they do, because only then does a book begin its real journey on the road to immortaHty. It was a book I had to read at any cost because, so I was told, it was the fruit of Hesse's visit to India. Suddenly I found myself with two copies of it, in German, one sent me by my translator, Kurt Wagenseil, the other sent by the wife of George Dibbem, author of Quest. I had hardly finished reading the original version when my friend Pierre Laleure, a bookseller in Paris, sent me several copies of the Grasset edition. I immediately reread the book in that language, discovering to my delight that I had missed nothing of the flavor or substance of the book because of my very rusty know- ledge of German.
Often since I have remarked to friends, and there is truth in the exaggeration, that had Siddhartha been obtainable only in Turkish, Finnish or Hungarian, I would have read and understood it just the same, though I know not a word of any of these outlandish tongues. It is not quite accurate to say that I conceived an overwhelming desire to read this book because Hermann Hesse had been to India. It was the word Siddhartha, an epithet which I had always associated with the Buddha, that whetted my appetite. The Prince of Enlightenment!
Somehow, that appella- tion never seemed to fit Jesus. A man of sorrow — that was more my conception of the gentle Jesus. The word enHghtenment struck a responsive chord in me ; it seemed to bum out those other words associated, rightly or wrongly, with the founder of Christianity. I mean words such as sin, guilt, redemption, and so on. To this day I still prefer the guru to a Christian saint or the best of the twelve disciples.
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About the guru there is, and always will be, this aura, so precious to me, of " enlightenment. I shall therefore content myself with quoting — for the benefit of those who know how to read between the lines — a few words Ufted from an autobiographical sketch by Hermann Hesse in the September, , issue of Horizon, London. Neither my writings nor my paintings do in actual fact conform to reaHty, and when I compose I often forget all the things that an educated reader demands of a good book — and above all I am lacking in a true respect for reality. I see that inadvertently I have touched on one of the vices or weaknesses of the too passionate reader.
Lao-tse says that " when a man with a taste for reforming the world takes the business in hand, it is easily seen that there will be no end to it. I have spoken of my letter- writing mania. I have told how I sit down, after closing a good book, and inform all and sundry about it. Admirable, you think? But it is also sheer folly and waste of time. The very men I seek to interest — critics, editors, pubHshers — are the ones least affected by my enthusiastic howls.
I have come to beheve, in fact, that my recommendation is alone sufficient to cause editors and publishers to lose interest in a book. Any book which I sponsor, or for which I vmte a preface or review, seems to be doomed.
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As best I can put it, this unwritten law runs thus : " Do not tamper with the destiny of another, even if that other be nothing but a book. It is, sadly enough, the fact that I identify myself with the poor author whom I am trying to aid. Some of these authors, to reveal a ridiculous aspect of the situation, have been dead a long time. They are aiding me, not I them! Of course I always put it to myself this way : " What a pity that so-and-so or so-and-so has not read this book!
What joy it would give him! What sustenance! This book, I am told, is selling Uke hot cakes. However, I take no credit for this ; it would have sold as well without my preface. Concerning two writers particularly, I have penned the most ardent, urgent letters imagin- able. A schoolboy could not have been more enthusiastic and naive than I. In writing one of these letters, I recall, I actually shed tears. It was addressed to the editor of a well-known pocket book edition. Do you suppose this individual was moved by my unrestrained emotion?
It took him just about six months to answer, in that matter of fact, cold-blooded, hypocritical fashion which editors often employ, that " they " always the dark hones had come to the conclusion, with deep regret the same old song , that my man was unsuitable for their list. Gratuitously they cited the excellent sales enjoyed by Homer long dead and William Faulkner, whom they had chosen to publish. Fantastic as it may sound, it is nevertheless the truth. It is exaaly how editors think. However, this vice of mine, as I see it, is a harmless one compared with those of poHtical fanatics, miUtary humbugs, vice crusaders and other detestable types.
In broadcasting to the world my admiration and affection, my gratitude and reverence, for two Uving French writers — Blaise Cendrars and Jean Giono — I fail to see that I am doing any serious harm. Perhaps my extravagant statements do contain an element of insensitivity. But then I was never what is called " discreet " or " deUcate. And so, i l am guilty, I beg pardon in advance of my friends Giono and Cendrars. But I will not hold back my words.
The course of the previous pages, the course of my whole hfe, indeed, leads me to this declaration of love and adoration. I had just a few minutes before catching the train for Rocamadour and I was having a last drink on the terrasse of my hotel near the Porte d'Orleans when Cendrars hove in sight. Nothing could have given me greater joy than this unexpected last-minute encounter. In a few words I told him of my intention to visit Greece.
Then I sat back and drank in the music of his sonorous voice which to me always seemed to come from a sea organ. In those last few minutes Cendrars managed to convey a world of information, and with the same warmth and tenderness which he exudes in his books. Like the very ground under our feet, his thoughts were honeycombed with all manner of subterranean passages. I left him sitting there in shirt-sleeves, never dreaming that years would elapse before hearing from him again, never dreaming that I was perhaps taking my last look at Paris. I had read whatever was translated of Cendrars before arriving in France, That is to say, almost nothing.
My first taste of him in his own language came at a time when my French was none too proficient. I began with Moravagine, a book by no means easy to read for one who knows Httle French. I read it slowly, with a dictionary by my side, shifting from one cafe to another. I remember well the day. Should Cendrars ever read these lines he may be pleased, touched perhaps, to know that it was in that dingy hole I first opened his book.
Moravagine was probably the second or third book which I had attempted to read in French. Only the other day, after a lapse of about eighteen years, I reread it. And I had thought my French was null! Here is one of the passages I remember as clearly as the day I first read it. It begins at the top of page 77 Editions Grasset, I tell you of things that brought some reUef at the start. There was also the water, gurgling at intervals, in the water-closet pipes.
A boundless despair possessed me. I cite them not to brag of my powers of memory but to reveal an aspect of Cendrars which his English and American readers probably do not suspect the existence of 1. I, the freest man that exists, recognise that there is always something that binds one : that Hberty, indepen- dence do not exist, and I am full of contempt for, and at the same time take pleasure in, my helplessness. More and more I reaHse that I have always led the contemplative life. I am a sort of Brahmin in reverse, meditating on himself amid the hurly-burly, who, with all his strength, disciplines himself and scorns existence.
Or the boxer with his shadow, who, furiously, calmly, punching at emptiness, watches his form. They are memorable ones and thoroughly the author's own. Long before I attempted to make Cendrars better known to the American pubHc and to the world at large, I may well add , John Dos Passos had translated and illustrated with water colors Panama, or the adventures of my seven uncles.
An evolved man, truly. Certainly an evolved writer. And this individual who has led a super-dimensional Ufe is also a bookworm. The most gregarious of men and yet a soUtary. The logic of life. Life always with a capital L. That's Cendrars. The itinerary of his wanderings is more difficult to follow than Marco Polo's, whose trajectory, incidentally, he seems to have crossed and recrossed a number of times. One of the reasons for the great fascination he exerts over me is the resem- blance between his voyages and adventures and those which I associate in memory with Sinbad the Sailor or Aladdin of the Wonderful Lamp.
The amazing experiences which he attributes to the characters in his books, and which often as not he has shared, have all the qualities of legend as well as the authenticity of legend. Worshipping Ufe and the truth of life, he comes closer than any author of our time to revealing the common source of word and deed. He restores to contemporary life the elements of the heroic, the imaginative and the fabulous. One must read his early life especially to appreciate the truth of this statement.
He has consorted with all types, including bandits, murderers, revolutionaries and other varieties of fanatic. He has tried out no less than thirty-six metiers, according to his own words, but, like Balzac, gives the impression of knowing every metier. But read his Hfe! There is more in it than meets the eye. Yes, he is an explorer and investigator of the ways and doings of men. And he has made himself such by planting himself in the midst of life, by taking up his lot with his fellow creatures.
What a superb, painstaking reporter he is, this man who would scorn the thought of being called " a student of Hfe. Which is why, no doubt, his own story is always interwoven with the other man's. To be sure, he possesses the art of distillation, but what he is vitally interested in is the alchemical nature of all relationships. This eternal quest of the trans- mutative enables him to reveal men to themselves and to the world ; it causes him to extol men's virtues, to reconcile us to their faults and weaknesses, to increase our knowledge and respect for what is essentially human, to deepen our love and imderstanding of the world.
An innovator and initiator, ever the first to give testimony, he has made known to us the real pioneers, the real adventurers, the real discoverers among our contemporaries. More than any writer I can think of he has made dear to us " le bel aujourd'hui. He has told us in one of his recent books how the Germans les Boches! Thank God, his memory is aHve and functions Hke a faithful machine.
It is a sort of secret collaboration between Cendrars and the innermost being of Al Jennings. At the time of writing it, Cendrars had not yet met Jennings nor even corresponded with him. This is another book, I must say in passing, which our pocket book editors have overlooked. There is a fortune in it, unless I am all wet, and it would be comforting to think that part of this fortune should fmd its way into Al Jennings' pocket.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Cendrars' temperament is his abihty and readiness to collaborate with a fellow artist. What an opportunity! To him we owe an edition of Le5 Chants de Maldoror, the first to appear since the original private pubhcation by the author in In everything an innovator, always meticulous, scrupulous and exacting in his demands, whatever issued from the hands of Cendrars at La Sirene is now a valuable collector's item. Hand in hand with this capability for collaboration goes another quaHty — the abiUty, or grace, to make the first over- tures.
I speak with justifiable warmth here. No writer ever paid me a more signal honor than dear Blaise Cendrars who, shortly after the pubHcation of Tropic of Cancer, knocked at my door one day to extend the hand of firiendship. Nor can I forget that first tender, eloquent review of the book which appeared under his signature in Orbes shortly there- after.
Or perhaps it was before he appeared at the studio in the Villa Seurat. There were times when reading Cendrars — and this is something which happens to me rarely — that I put the book down in order to wring my hands with joy or despair, with anguish or with despera- tion. Cendrars has stopped me in my tracks again and again, just as implacably as a gunman pressing a rod against one's spine. Oh, yes, I am often carried away by exaltation in reading a man's work.
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