‘The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence’ by Baltasar Gracián

Gracian is the Macchiavelli most have never heard of. He was a Jesuit priest in 17th century Spain, but the ‘Soldier of God’ side doesn’t come out in this work. In fact, besides the occasional quote or reference to Ignatius (the Jesuit order’s founder), the text is entirely secular in tone.

What does come across quite strongly though is his inspiration from and adherence to Stoicism. He regularly quotes and alludes to Seneca and Epictetus, and many of his aphorisms promote Stoic themes in life:

‘We climb the ladder of life, and the rungs — the days — disappear one after another, the moment we move our feet. There is no way to climb down, nothing to do but go forward.’

So why Macchiavellian? This, his most famous book, is a collection of exactly 300 aphorisms inspired by, and meant to help navigate, the backstabbing world of 17th century Baroque Spain. His ‘tips’ were for negotiating not just the higher echelons of government (he was confessor to the viceroy of Aragon at one point) but all levels of social strata and the competition that was natural in society. Gracian’s lumping in with the spirit of Macchiavelli is due to the directness of some of his advice, particularly where he endorses the idea that the end justifies the means. Gracian also has some apparently cold opinions about friendship and the usefulness of friends.

Gracian wrote in a popular style of the period known as ‘Conceptism’, the aim of which was to be as brief, direct, intelligible and witty as possible. This gives his work a simplicity and accessibility which makes it easy on the eyes of modern readers. The short aphorisms themselves allow the reader to read one and then spend time to digest it before moving on to the next (and often, thematically unrelated) one.

The Pocket Oracle is also eminently quotable. I’ve always read with a pen and notebook to hand to scribble down any interesting sentences – some books will make me stop frequently to do this while others, though not necessarily any less profound, have no memorable sentences. With the Pocket Oracle, you can end up highlighting or re-writing the entire book – it’s chock full of witty phrases, memorable analogies and colourful metaphors.
So it wouldn’t be worth writing all of my favourite quotes from the book here – just get a copy and read it. I will quote one odd little sentence here though, which caught my eye because I’m 6’3”:

‘It’s a commonplace that a tall person is rarely wise – not so much long-legged, as long-winded.’

Thanks Baltasar…

I have two regrets about the reading of this book: first, I read it as I would read a novel; that is, several or many pages at a time. The disadvantage of this is that, as each aphorism rarely takes up even half a page, there is no time to reflect on each one without going back and spending more time on it. So if/when I come back to this book in the future I’ll read one aphorism at a time; in this sense it makes the perfect book to keep on your bedside table and read one aphorism a night.
My other regret is not having known about it when I was in my teens having only got around to it in my late-thirties. I imagine this would be the ultimate fount of knowledge for someone in their late teens or twenties, just as they’re starting to need practical wisdom to navigate adult life. In fact, that reminds me of of one aphorism in The Pocket Oracle which summarises the entire work; that is, how to live:

‘What use is knowledge, if it isn’t practical? And today, knowing how to live is true knowledge.’ 

A brief look at… ‘Pied Beauty’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Glory be to God for dappled things —

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;

Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough;

And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Hopkins is the kind of poet you can really fall in love with—his style, though carefully metered, is multi-coloured, luminescent, brands the reader’s eyes and begs to be read aloud. Even 150 years later, his poems still feel fresh, innovative and modern.

Pied Beauty is his most well-known and loved poem; it’s a poem about the beauty of ‘pied’ things—that is, things of two colours or shades, light and dark, black and white.

The first line puts Hopkins’ faith front and centre: he was a Jesuit priest and many of his poems are approached from the angle of faith. The double-coloured ‘things’ that Hopkins describes are his way of celebrating difference and diversity in God’s creation.

Hopkins’ defining feature as a poet is not his ‘Christian-ness’ though , which on its own would have likely prevented his poems from withstanding the passage of time through to our secular era. Hopkins’ strength was his use of the English language in innovative ways: his signature compound nouns and adjectives that took existing, stale language and created new, evocative and emotional images.

When you look closely at the language he uses it soon becomes apparent that there is something ‘pure’ about his choice of vocabulary—there is a uniformity of language that he very purposefully selects; he avoids the Latinate and the Greek and other influences that are part and parcel of our everyday, mixed-race English, and chooses instead to use the Anglo-Saxon—the ‘Old’ English. Throw the words from Pied Beauty into an etymological dictionary and they are almost all of Old English origin.

That’s not the only Anglo-Saxon English connection—the alliterative runs that he uses are typical of Old English heroic poetry—yet Hopkins takes this style and creates something thoroughly modern.

There is poise too—Hopkins isn’t just inventing new words and playing a sort of Victorian word game—he keeps the metre tight in the Curtal Sonnet form (a variation of the sonnet that he invented himself) and the rhymes full: he perfectly begins runs of alliterative and assonant lines with sounds that morph into other sounds—perhaps as a symbol of the flux of the natural phenomena he is describing:

‘Fold, fallow and plough’, or

‘… swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;’

The poem finishes as it starts: in contrast to the fickle and transitory nature of every thing in the world, Hopkins returns to God whose ‘beauty is past change’ and his exhortation to Praise him’.

The first draft

So I have just finished writing the first draft of my first novel. It took about 41 years to get here. Okay, that’s not strictly true—I haven’t exactly been spending my entire life trying to eke out 90,000 words to call a first draft; but there have been many times and many periods throughout my life when I thought that I should write a novel.

There was the aborted attempt in my twenties when I got about four thousand words in then decided it/me just wasn’t working. That cancelled attempt is still lingering somewhere on a floppy disk as a Word 93 .doc file; I’d be quite interested in reading it if I knew anyone with a floppy disk drive…

The first attempt of my current work-in-progress was two years ago. I had to wait three months for my visa to clear before being able to work so I decided it would be the ideal time to write a novel—no excuses about being too busy, this was my golden opportunity.

I flew out of the blocks and got into a routine of writing every morning. It was new and exciting and, even though I didn’t have a firm idea about where it was going, I knew the plot would manifest itself the further I got inside it.

Then I stopped. A new job combined with a new baby and suddenly my energy levels and motivation levels collapsed and that was the end. The further away I got from my last writing session the more I realised I would never come back to it.

But about 18 months later, I read through what I had written and started to get the feeling back for it. So for the past three and half months I diligently chipped away at it, finishing just over 90,000 words a couple of days ago.

What have I learnt in my still-limited experience? A few things that I wish I had known at the start of the process actually:

  1. Write every single day, without exception. I started off by aiming to write 1000 words five days a week with two ‘rest’ days. What I found though was that after my days off it took a lot of effort to get back into it and into the mood of writing. I lost momentum and pretty quickly resolved to write, even though a fewer words, every day without fail.
  2. That initial feeling of ‘I can’t write a novel’ dissipated so quickly once I got into the flow; I’d say the 20,000-word mark was when I realised I wouldn’t be giving up and would, at least at the time of writing this, make it to the end of the first draft.
  3. Don’t worry when you get stuck on a detail. Leave a placeholder for it and keep going—those things can be worked out in subsequent drafts, not when you’re writing freely in the first draft. Just get it written.
  4. Aeon Timeline is an app for creating timelines and keeping all your characters, locations and story arcs clear. It really helped me towards the end of the first draft to make clear where everthing fit in the plot. I’m sure I’ll be using it a lot when it comes to the second draft—I just wish I’d heard about it earlier on.
  5. Plan but don’t follow it rigidly. So many times the characters took control of my story and took it in unexpected directions; and that’s alright. I am positive they haven’t finished guiding the novel yet either—there’s still a long way to go.

So I’m having a little break now for a couple of weeks and trying to put my focus onto other projects, hoping that when I come back to the novel I will be able to see it again with fresh eyes.

The next step? The dreaded first read through where (from what I’ve heard) every writer realises how far they have to go to finish their novel.

Mishima—A Life in Four Chapters

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is a film about the life of the great Japanese author, Yukio Mishima. Mishima was a superstar of Japanese literature, writing many novels, plays and short stories—he even dabbled in modelling and acting. However, Mishima was a traditionalist and nationalist, who lamented and fought against the westernisation of Japanese culture—he actively called for a return to traditional Japanese values and the samurai spirit.

His masterpiece is the Proustian tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility. On the very morning he finished writing the final volume, The Decay of the Angel, he went to an army barracks with members of his far right-wing militia and tried to start a coup. His speech to all the troops from the roof of the barracks was an embarrassment however; realising he was not going to get the support he needed, he barricaded himself inside the barracks and committed Seppukus—a samurai form of suicide by which the victim uses a special knife to cut into and across the abdomen.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters tackles his life by interweaving scenes from 3 of his books – The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Kyoko’s House and Runaway Horses (volume 2 of The Sea of Fertility) with biographical episodes from his own life. The film was never given a general release in Japan due to pressure from far-right groups who were unhappy with the film’s portrayal of Mishima, particularly as a homosexual. Most surprisingly about this film is who was behind it – it was produced by George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola and its soundtrack was written by Philip Glass—yet it is an almost unheard of curiosity.

 

Epictetus – ‘Discourses’ and ‘Handbook’

Stoicism is in vogue – this 2000-year-old philosophy has been popularised in recent years as a kind of ‘lifehack’ – it’s an extremely seductive idea in a world where people feel like they have so little control over events both in their own lives and in the world around them, because it helps people get over their feelings of impotence – to ignore those ‘impressions’ which one has no means of influencing or changing.

When learning about Stoicism there are 3 people you need to know – Roman statesman and advisor to the Emperor Nero, Seneca; the so-called ‘Philosopher King’, Marcus Aurelius (Joaquin Phoenix’s Dad in Gladiator) and Epictetus, a former slave who taught Stoicism in Rome. All three of these wrote and spoke about Stoicism more than 300 years after the Stoic philosophy was founded at the end of the 4th century BC.
I highly recommend reading both Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Seneca’s Letters but this post is about Epictetus and his Discourses.

Epictetus didn’t actually write anything, and the Discourses are essentially lecture notes written up by one of his pupils, Arrian, who also helpfully summarised the 7 books of Discourses into a short book called the Enchiridion, or Handbook. Of the 7 books written for the Discourses, only 4 actually survive. Each book is split into short explanations about how to live a good life through constant reflection and the forming of good habits with chapters such as ‘What is the essence of the good?’, ‘On contentment’ and ‘That we should approach everything with circumspection’. What the Stoic philosophy boils down to is:

‘Some things are within our power, while others are not.’

This is our ‘Sphere of choice’ – a split between the internal phenomena which are within our control and external things which are not. Internal circumstances such as our feelings and opinions are well within our power to control, which means that no matter how terrible something that happens to us is, it is only our internal reactions to these events which makes them bad: external events therefore, cannot be intrinsically ‘bad’:

‘It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them.’

This makes a lot of sense and has been put to great effect by people in the worst possible circumstances; a modern example is Admiral James Stockdale, who was a POW in Vietnam for 7 years – physically and psychologically tortured, he put his survival down to putting his knowledge of Stoicsim into practice.

So, according to Stoicism, there is no point is worrying about things which are beyond our control (IE Externals) – why be distressed, anxious, frightened about something you have absolutely no control over? Epictetus and the Stoics say you shouldn’t – and that if we can train ourselves to think like that then we will live much happier lives.

Here’s an example of putting Stoicism into practice in our modern lives: You are stuck in a traffic jam, trying to get home but you are barely moving; the clock is ticking; you’re starting to get frustrated – huffing and puffing and swearing under your breath; you can feel your heart rate increasing and you’re starting to sweat. Beep the horn, punch the steering wheel – you’re extremely p!ssed off… but why? You can’t control the traffic – it is what it is and no amount of frustration will get you home sooner – in fact it may cause you to do something rash and cause an accident or even a fight. So accept it – it’s an external – you can’t control that but you can control your reaction to that. Stay calm, make the most of the time you think is being wasted by training your patience or listening to an audio version of the ‘Discourses’.

In Epictetus’ Stoicism it is not enough to read about it and to tell others about it (he frequently castigates those ‘philosophers’ he sees as talking the talk but not walking the walk) – one must put what one has learned into practice every hour of every day and act in accordance with Stoic principles – perhaps a straightforward proposition until you realise the extremes this goes to.

I think Stoicism is a wonderfully attractive method for living in the modern world but it has been the victim of cherrypicking. First of all, Stoics believe in God and Fate – everything happens for a good reason, which is not entirely palatable to a lot of people. Secondly, when considering the tenet above that one should not concern oneself with ‘Externals’, it begs the questions about what, if any, limits can be applied to this.

Epictetus though, is quite specific about this – it doesn’t matter how horrendous something is – if it’s an external then it’s an external and should not be fretted over. Here’s an excerpt from the Handbook, chapters 14 and 11:

‘If you want your children and wife and friends to live for ever, you’re a fool, because you’re wanting things that aren’t within your power to be within your power, and things that aren’t your own to be your own.’

It’s an entirely logical statement but surely a stretch for most people to be able to accept the death of their loved ones, and I doubt most people who follow Stoicism today can truly be that consistent.

So Stoicism may not be something that most people can take on entirely, but in the Discourses and Handbook we can find tips for living a ‘good’ life and for cutting down on the stress and anxiety of living in our modern society.

A brief look at… ‘Gate of Lilacs—A Verse Commentary on Proust’ by Clive James

 

When I got to the end of the seventh and final volume of In Search of Lost Time, Time Regained, I felt utterly lost. I had lived and breathed Proust’s masterpiece for almost a year and the realisation that it was over was a shock to my system—no more Baron de Charlus, Robert de Saint Loup, Madame Verdurin or Gilberte. Where could I possibly go next?

So I devoured everything Proust-related that I could find to try and keep his book alive inside me—biographies, films, documentaries, critiques. And here, a collection of poems, a commentary.

Clive James, the famous Australian poet, essayist, novelist and (in the UK) TV presenter, has brought his wit and smarts to tackling Proust. In the introduction James writes that he took the ‘long way round’ to Proust because he read it first in the original French and over the course of fifteen years learnt the language in this way. This in itself is remarkable—learning French simply (although not simple) by reading a book that is 1.3 million words long. One day I hope I can read it in the original French, but what a gigantic undertaking when you know little more than merci, pommes frites and Zinedine Zidane. 

Why poems? In his introduction, James says: ‘If I wanted to talk about his poetry beyond the basic level of talking about his language—if I wanted to talk about the poetry of his thought—then the best way to do it might be to write a poem.’

But these poems are a surprising departure from James’ usual strict adherence to form. There are no stanzas, each poem is one long chunk of text, reminiscent of Proust’s own thick-set paragraphs and famously long sentences. And these slabs of line atop line are in blank verse, more prose than poem.

In his notes at the end of the collection, James claims that ‘the poem is meant to explain itself.’ I can only think that is with the proviso that you have actually read Proust and will get the references; I’m sure a lot of these poems would be incomprehensible without having read Proust first, even with the explanations in the addenda, for example of relevant people like the composer Reynaldo Hahn, or the fictional artists Bergotte and Elstir. But James is well aware of this and even includes references to people (a French-speaking friend, his own daughters) who have never had the slightest impulse to read Proust: it’s not for everyone, and that’s all fine.

Sometimes it feels like we are reading James’ notes, scribbled down in the margins as he read the book over 15 years. He zips from subject to subject within single poems as though streaming his own consciousness through the lens of what he had just happened to read in the novel, taking in his own continuous present with references to Maria Callas, the Bay of Pigs, The West Wing. In You saw nothing in Hiroshima he focuses on the book’s tone and disagrees that it can be summarised or has ‘sound-bites to take away’. (Though many would certainly disagree with this conclusion—remember the Monty Python sketch?!).

The poems here, despite the exterior motive, are personal; they follow James’ life of reading Proust as much as the stories contained within In Search of Lost Time. The simple physics of reading Proust means it does take a long time, encompassing life changing events in our own lives that become anchored in the very act of reading it. In the final poem, I’ll drown my books, James writes ‘As the face of Oriane is not described / But only conjured from your memories’—In Search of Lost Time is as much a part of the reader’s life as of Proust’s himself.

Finally, to hammer home this point, the terminally ill James delivers the most poignant line of all right at the end: ‘And soon / All that I love will leave me, as I go / First into silence, then the fire, and then / The harbour water, in which there will be / At last no room to breathe, no time to think: No time to think even of you, Marcel.’

A brief look at… ‘Aubade’ by Philip Larkin

An ‘Aubade’ is a morning song. It’s the AM equivalent of a serenade and traditionally contains the serenade’s communication of love.

Philip Larkin’s famous Aubade is anything but a serenade transplanted to dawn. This is a poem about death, and being overwhelmed by the realisation that your days are running out. Romantic it is not.

From the very first line the reader gets the impression that he’s already half given up on life with his daily ritual of work and getting ‘half-drunk at night’ to dull the senses. He wakes up at four – wide awake and with the realisation of his mortality making any further rest impossible.

Larkin continues by explaining that this isn’t a moan about regretting his life until now, nor is he jaded with the struggle of his life so far; the fear and trembling that Larkin is experiencing is purely existential – he is petrified of one day not ‘existing’ anymore.

For such a dark topic, it’s interesting how tight the metre in this poem is – Larkin doesn’t veer from his 10-line stanzas and rhyme scheme; it’s not disjointed like one might expect such a despairing poem to be. The form from stanza to stanza is predictable and unavoidable like the subject matter itself.

By the third stanza Larkin is looking for solace; Religion is useless now and logic can’t convince him that death and its ‘anaesthetic’is nothing to fear. Larkin seems like he’s wrestling with the inevitable, and the darkness of early morning amplifies his dread before the light ‘strengthens’ and another day begins. His poem seems to me to be ending with a slight note of positivity, or at least, a strategy for getting through the day – by working, by pushing forward as this is the only way we, as humans, know how – ‘Work has to be done.’But then, in the very last line, he reminds us that death is always there –  following us around – with the startling line: ‘Postmen like doctors go from house to house.’

Listen to ‘Aubade’ in Philip Larkin’s own words: