Sunday, March 28, 2010


Above A WPA-era government poster in favor of sanitary outhouses. Poster design by John Buczak, c1940. The brief passage that follows is from a memoir by American psychologist Roger G. Barker, recalling his childhood in Pover, Iowa, in Gardner Lindzey, ed., A History of Psychology in Autobiography. Vol VIII. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1989, p. 4—

We had a horse and buggy, cow, chickens, apple trees, a walnut grove, a superior privy with three seats of different heights and sizes of apertures.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Do Not Climb Mount Fuji

Above Katsushika Hokusai, Red Fuji (Southern Wind Clear Morning). Ukiyo-e woodblock print, c1830. The following passage is from John Morris, Traveler from Tokyo. New York: Sheridan House, 1944—

I wish, however, that I had not climbed Mount Fuji; never again was I able to quite capture the feeling of pristine beauty that it undoubtedly gives until such time as one actually sets foot upon its slopes. But then, as one of my Japanese friends was fond of saying, Fuji is only a "seeing" mountain; it was never meant to be climbed. The Japanese, however, have a saying that there are two kinds of fool: those who have never climbed Mount Fuji, and those who have climbed it more than once.

Eisenstein's Signature Upside Down

Above Alexander Rodchenko's poster for Sergei Eisenstein's famous film, The Battleship Potemkin (1926). Public domain. The following is a passage from Raphael Soyer, Diary of an Artist. Washington DC: New Republic Books, 1977, p. 127—

[An exhibition] which marked the fifteenth anniversary of [Russian filmmaker Sergei] Eisenstein's death, also contained his photos, letters, and old clippings, and books about him. One poignant item was a page from a notebook upon which Eisenstein wrote in Russian: "Today I am fifty years old," signed and dated. This is exhibited upside down to show how his unique signature in this position resembles the battleship Potemkin. The day after Eisenstein wrote this, he died.

Jacky Tar Creed

From James Joyce, Ulysses. New York: Random House, 1946, p. 323—

They believe in rod, the scourger almighty, creator of hell upon earth and in Jacky Tar, the son of a gun, who was conceived of unholy boast, born of the fighting navy, suffered under rump and dozen, was sacrificed flayed and curried, yelled like bloody hell, the third day he rose again from the bed, steered into haven, sitteth on his beamend till further orders whence he shall come to drudge for a living and be paid.

Fleming Grounded

From Edward Marsh, Ambrosia and Small Beer. NewYork: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965, p. 342—

Sir Alexander Fleming, inventor of penicillin, was to fly to Belfast and give a lecture on it, but when he got to the aerodome he was told it was quite impossible for him to go, as all the berths were taken for Ministerial personages of the Highest Priority—so the aeroplane started without him. It turned out that the passengers were all officials from the Ministry of Health who had been sent to hear the lecture.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


From Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise. New York: Persea Books, 1938—

The shock, for an intelligent writer, of discovering for the first time that there are people younger than himself who think him stupid is severe. Especially if he is at an age (thirty-five to forty-two) when his self-confidence is easily shattered. The seventh luster is such a period, a menopause for artists, a serious change of life. It is the transition from a being a young writer, from being potentially Byron, Shelley, Keats, to becoming a stayer, a Wordsworth, a Coleridge, a Landor. It would seem that genius is of two kinds, one of which blazes up in youth and dies down, while the other matures, like Milton or Goethe's, through long choosing, putting out new branches every seven years.

Upending Robert Frost

American poet Robert Frost, quoted in George Plimpton, ed., The Writer's Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century's Preeminent Writers. New York: Viking, 1989, pp. 339-340—

Among other things, what [poet Ezra] Pound did was show me Bohemia. He'd take me to restaurants and things. Showed me ju jitsu in a restaurant. Threw me over his head. Wasn't ready for him at all. I was just as strong as he was. He said, "I'll show you, I'll show you. Stand up." So I stood up, gave him my hand. He grabbed my wrist, tipped over backwards and threw me over his head. Everybody in the restaurant stood up.

Leonardo the Mischief

From Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1568)—

He [Leonardo da Vinci] would often dry and purge the guts of a wether [a gelded male sheep] and make them so small that they might be held in the palm of the hand. In another room he kept a pair of [black]smith's bellows, and with these he would blow out one of the guts until it filled the room, which was a large one, forcing anyone there to take refuge in a corner.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Henry Moore's Secret

From Donald Hall, Life Work. Boston MA: Beacon Press, 1993, pp. 53-54—

[The last time American poet Donald Hall saw British sculptor Henry Moore, the latter] talked about his new grandson and showed us drawings in a studio he had just built to extend his workday. We sat with a drink in the sunny living room he had added to the house which, when he moved to it during the war, had been a broken-down farmworker's cottage. I knew my man, and I asked him, "Now that you're eighty, you must know the secret of life. What is the secret of life?" With anyone else the answer would have begun with an ironic laugh, but Henry Moore answered me straight: "The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do!"

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Dog's Nose and Man's Eyes

From Charley Waterman, Gun Dogs and Bird Guns: A Charley Waterman Reader. GSJ Press, 1986—

A man can sit in his living room and tell you he smells nothing at all; at least he is conscious of no odors. Give him a whiff of frying ham, and he thinks he smells that and nothing else. So if his nose is selective, it is crudely so, and he records nothing but the exceptional odors. But visually he is highly selective, and he'll find a small object of interest in a vast scene containing a thousand larger things. The dog's nose is as selective as the man's eyes.

Friday, March 5, 2010

10,000 Days of Grass

From James Elkins, How to Use Your Eyes. London: Routledge, 2000—

A normal lifetime, for a person who lives in a developed nation, is about 30,000 days. Grass is in bloom for about 10,000 of those days, and certainly I could take one of them to sit down and get to know grass. But it is frightening how quickly life passes. I am a little over forty years old, and that means I have used up more than half of those 10,000 days that I have been given for viewing grass. If I'm lucky, I have about 30 summers left. Each summer has about 60 days of good weather, and maybe 20 days when I actually get outside and have some time to spare. That adds up to a little over 600 chances to see grass. They can easily slip away.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Never Twain Shall Meet

Mark Twain, as interviewed in Rudyard Kipling, From Sea to Sea: Letters of Travel. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1889—

Your conscience is a nuisance. A conscience is like a child. If you pet it and play with it and let it have everything that it wants, it becomes spoiled and intrudes on all your amusements and most of your griefs. Treat your conscience as you would anything else. When it is rebellious, spank it—be severe with it, argue with it, prevent it from coming to play with you at all hours, and you will secure a good conscience; one that is to say, a properly trained one. A spoiled one simply destroys all the pleasure in life. I think I have reduced mine to order. At least, I haven't heard from it for some time. Perhaps I have killed it from over-severity.

Cerebral Secretions

From Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Understanding n. A cerebral secretion that enables one having it to know a house from a horse by the roof of the house. Its nature and laws have been exhaustively expounded by Locke, who rode a house, and Kant, who lived in a horse.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What Company Is For

From Mark Van Doren (recalling his friendship with Joseph Wood Krutch), The Autobiography of Mark Van Doren. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968—

The important thing was that we had a great deal to say to each other, and that each was really interested in what the other said; also, that each was eager to speak when it came to his turn, and was confident that what he said would be worth hearing. We like those who inspire us to talk well, to talk indeed our best, which in their presence becomes something better than it ever was before, so that it surprises and delights us too. We like least those persons in whose presence we are dull. For we can be either, and company brings it out; this is what company is for.