Highlights for The Hall of Uselessness

One has the feeling that these critics do not really like literature—they do not enjoy reading. Worse even, if they were actually to enjoy a book, they would suspect it to be frivolous. In their eyes, something that is amusing cannot be important or serious.
Though, as a wise doctor once remarked, between two doctors whose medical qualifications are otherwise equal, we should trust the one who reads Chekhov.
The closer a book comes to being a genuine work of art, a true creation with a life of its own, the less likely it is that the author had full control over and a clear understanding of what he wrote.
what led them to their mysticism was simply the perception of “an intolerable disparity between the hugeness of their desire and the smallness of reality.”
Still, the notion that it is generally unwise to make pronouncements in areas that lie outside one’s expertise remains a sound principle. I only wish that Mr. Hitchens himself would abide by it.
This weird belief that a dead man called Jesus is still alive should command all the deeds and all the thoughts of a Christian.
“But if someone does not do it, how will good be done?” questioned the old gentleman in a voice full of perplexity. “Live so,” replied the Master in a voice suddenly stern, “live so that by the sanctity of thy life all good will be performed involuntarily.”
I was writing in a café; I had been sitting there for a couple of hours already, comfortably settled at a table with my books and papers. Like many lazy people, I enjoy a measure of hustle and bustle around me while I am supposed to work—it gives me an illusion of activity—and thus the surrounding din of conversations and calls did not disturb me in the least.
true Philistines are not people who are incapable of recognising beauty; they recognise it all too well; they detect its presence anywhere, immediately, and with a flair as infallible as that of the most sensitive aesthete—but for them, it is in order to be able better to pounce upon it at once and to destroy it before it can gain a foothold in their universal empire of ugliness.
And Claudel commented: “This mental process is identical to that of poetical writing . . . The impelling motion is the same. Which shows that the primary source of scientific thought is not reasoning, but the precise verification of an association originally supplied by the imagination.”
The fact is, these two arts—history writing and fiction writing—originating both in poetry, involve similar activities and mobilise the same faculties: memory and imagination; and this is why it could rightly be said that the novelist is the historian of the present and the historian the novelist of the past. Both must invent the truth.
He clearly felt that, together with the rest of the country, he was being progressively sucked into a poisonous swamp. To ensure a reasonably smooth and trouble-free existence, small compromises were constantly required—nothing difficult nor particularly dramatic; everyone else, to a various extent, was similarly involved. Yet the sum total of these fairly banal, daily surrenders eroded the integrity of each individual.
His short (unfinished), clear-sighted and sober memoir raises one terrifying question: all that Haffner knew at the time, many millions of people around him knew equally well. Why was there only one Haffner?
However, beware! Whenever people wonder “What is the truth?” usually it is because the truth is just under their noses—but it would be very inconvenient to acknowledge it.
“I do not care for scholars unless they are scholars without wishing to be or without knowing it. There is nothing easier than becoming a scholar. To acquire learning, it suffices to lock oneself up in one’s house for six months. It is far better to have a good imagination than a good memory.”
The brutalities of boarding school can routinely maim sensitive children for life; occasionally they may also breed a genius.
“Genius,” Baudelaire said, “is childhood recalled at will.”
There is no escaping the radical difference between the capacity for conception and that for execution: imagination and action are often at opposite poles. That is why novelists usually do not become millionaires, whereas millionaires do not even read novels.
Half of the misery in this world is caused by people whose only talent is to worm their way into positions for which they otherwise have no competence.
At the remotest end of Europe, Tolstoy secured without delay a copy of the book and was overwhelmed. One may say without exaggeration that Les Misérables triggered War and Peace. Giants breed giants.
Nor must we overlook the essential: he benefited from what only the warm affection of a united family can supply, a happy childhood, which arms one to face life and, once adult, to eliminate the risk of losing time in some fatuous and vain quest for happiness.
For the gift of the poet (which is also the gift of the child) is the ability to connect with the real world, to look at things with rapt attention. Both the poet and the child are blessed with what Chesterton called “the mystical minimum”: the awareness that things are—full stop. “If a thing is nothing else, that is good; it is—and that is good.”
None of the activities that really matter can be pursued in a merely professional capacity;
Thus he made the point that the man must be, to a certain extent, a specialist—out of necessity, he finds himself confined in a narrow professional pursuit, since he must do one thing well enough to earn the daily bread—whereas the woman is the true universalist: she must do a hundred things for the safe-guarding and management of the home.
He realised it was a status he could easily have achieved, had he agreed to pay the usual price—which is to isolate and emphasise only one side of the truth. This is always an easy recipe for achieving popularity and for gathering crowds of disciples; but to secure this sort of demagogic success one must mutilate a complex reality.
Generally speaking, literary people are exceedingly self-centred and vain—on the whole they are not a very attractive breed—but Chesterton did not belong to that species.
Here, Gide seems to be unwittingly joining Claudel, who held that the key metaphor with which to interpret the diverse manifestations of German culture was the sausage.
Conclusion: if one had to go out to sea in a small boat, one would not choose Orwell for skipper. But when meeting with shipwreck, disaster or other catastrophe, one could not dream of better company.
For all his gluttony and drunkenness, his passionate attachment to all things of beauty, his selfishness, his impatience, his unkindness and anger (a close friend once asked how he could reconcile his generally beastly behaviour and his Christianity; Waugh replied: “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid, I would hardly be a human being”), what he derived from his Catholicism was a fundamental ability not to take this world too seriously.
The latter exacted from him such an intense, nervous effort that sometimes, before starting to write, he would suffer fits of vomiting. Each time, he had to assume imaginatively the persona of his main protagonist—to become him—and then to see with the mind’s eye the world his pen was conjuring as it followed an inner dictation.
This phenomenon reached such an intensity that there were times when it scared Simenon, times when he felt drawn towards an uncertain border where his very sanity might founder.
Every life leaves behind an accumulation of broken odds and ends—bizarre and sometimes smelly. Rummaging there, one can always unearth enough evidence to establish that the deceased was both monstrous and mediocre. Such a combination is quite common—whoever doubts it needs only look at himself in a mirror.
In the eighteenth century, French was the common language of the leading minds of continental Europe; twentieth-century French intellectuals hardly noticed that times had changed in this respect; they retained the dangerous belief that whatever was not expressed in French could hardly matter.
Revel’s attempt at entering into active politics was short-lived, but the experience gave him an invaluable insight into the essential intellectual dishonesty that is unavoidably attached to partisan politicking.
Mitterrand was the purest type of political animal: he had no politics at all. He had a brilliant intelligence, but for him ideas were neither right nor wrong, they were only useful or useless in the pursuit of power. The object of power was not a possibility to enact certain policies; the object of all policies was simply to attain and retain power.
In other words, people who do not read fiction or poetry are in permanent danger of crashing against facts and being crushed by reality.
Confucius often said that if only a ruler could employ him, in one year he would achieve a lot, and in three years he would succeed. One day a disciple asked him, “If a king were to entrust you with a territory which you could govern according to your ideas, what would you do first?” Confucius replied, “My first task would certainly be to rectify the names.” On hearing this, the disciple was puzzled. “Rectify the names? And that would be your first priority? Is this a joke?” (Chesterton or Orwell, however, would have immediately understood and approved the idea.) Confucius had to explain: “If the names are not correct, if they do not match realities, language has no object. If language is without an object, action becomes impossible—and therefore, all human affairs disintegrate and their management becomes pointless and impossible. Hence, the very first task of a true statesman is to rectify the names.”
Zhou Zuoren (1885–1968), summarised in one pithy sentence this living tradition of which he himself was a product: “All that can be spelled out is without importance.”
Aesthetic criteria are functional: does the work do what it does efficiently, does it nourish the vital energy of the artist, does it succeed in capturing the spirit that informs mountains and rivers, does it establish harmony between the metamorphoses of forms and the metamorphoses of the world?
Orientalism could obviously have been written by no one but a Palestinian scholar with a huge chip on his shoulder and a very dim understanding of the European academic tradition (here perceived through the distorted prism of a certain type of American university, with its brutish hyper-specialisation, non-humanistic approach, and close, unhealthy links with government).
He dispatched the affairs of the state with the supreme efficiency of an old Daoist ruler who knows that one should govern a large empire the way one cooks a little fish.
His unique skills made him forever indispensable, while simultaneously he cultivated a quality of utter elusiveness; no one could pin him down to a specific political line, nor could one associate him with any particular faction. He never expressed personal ideas or indulged in penning his own theoretical views. Where did he really stand? What did he actually believe? Apparently he had no other policies but those of the leader of the moment, and nourished no other ambitions but to serve him with total dedication. Yet the brilliance of his mind, the sharpness of his intelligence, the electrifying quality of his personal magnetism, eloquence and authority constantly belied the kind of bland selflessness that he so studiously displayed in the performance of his public duties; Zhou’s enigma lay in the paradox that, with all his exceptional talents, he should also present a sort of disconcerting and essential hollowness.
Twenty-three hundred years ago, Zhuang Zi, in giving advice to a king, made him observe that when a small boat drifts in the way of a huge barge, the crew of the barge will immediately shout abuse at the stray craft; however, coming closer, if they discover that the little boat is empty, they will simply shut up and quietly steer clear of it. He concluded that a ruler who has to sail the turbulent waters of politics should first and foremost learn how to become an empty boat.
To reconcile such paradoxes, one must either learn the mental acrobatics of a very sophisticated game played by the enlightened vanguard and called “dialectics,” or, more vulgarly, face the fact that rather than being the prophet-philosopher as described by his worshippers, Mao was essentially always and foremost a practical politician for whom what mattered above everything was power—how to obtain it, how to retain it, how to regain it. In order to secure power, no sacrifice was ever too big—and least of all the sacrifice of principles. It is only in this light that it becomes possible to understand his alternations between compromise and ruthlessness, benevolence and ferocity, suppleness and brutality, and all his abrupt volte-faces: none of these were ever arbitrary.
Without an ability to decipher non-existent inscriptions written in invisible ink on blank pages, no one should ever dream of analysing the nature and reality of Chinese communism.
For Truth, by its very nature, is ugly, savage and cruel; it disturbs, it frightens, it hurts and it kills. If, in some extreme situations, it is to be used at all, it must be taken only in small doses, in strict isolation, and with the most rigorous prophylactic precautions. Whoever would be willing to spread it wildly, or to unload it in large quantities, just as it comes, is a dangerous and irresponsible person who should be restrained in the interest of his own safety, as well as for the protection of social harmony.
Kazimierz Brandys summed it up neatly (with the clear-sightedness that characterises so many Polish intellectuals, who on this subject have acquired a bitter expertise): “Contemporary history teaches us that all you need is one mentally sick individual, two ideologues and three hundred murderous thugs in order to take power and gag millions of people.”
Democracy is the only acceptable political system; yet it pertains to politics exclusively, and has no application in any other domain. When applied anywhere else, it is death—for truth is not democratic, intelligence and talent are not democratic, nor is beauty, nor love—nor God’s grace.
I am of course referring to the time before independence; for today, even if there should still be any enterprising Greek merchants around, I doubt very much that they would find passable tracks to reach these distant hamlets.
The most depressing thing is to watch these crowds of tourists, who paid a not inconsiderable amount to come here and secure for themselves eight days of happiness. In the motley uniforms of holiday convicts, they patrol lugubriously this huge Luna Park while trying hard to persuade themselves that they are getting their money’s worth of fun.
Literary scholars are particularly adept at cultivating this sort of nonsense: they seem permanently drunk on the psychedelic milk they keep sucking from the twin mammelles of Freud and Marx.

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