“Her Impact Was … Very Slight”

Politkovskaya

Anna Politkovskaya

I would like to say a few words on this subject [of Anna Politkovskaya’s murder]. First of all, I would like to say that no matter who committed this crime and no matter what the motives behind it, it was a horribly cruel crime and it cannot go unpunished. There could have been a number of different motives. This journalist was indeed a fierce critic of the current authorities in Russia. But, as the experts know, and as journalists should realise, I think, her impact on Russian political life was only very slight. She was well known in the media community, in human rights circles and in the West, but her influence on political life within Russia was very minimal. The murder of someone like her, the brutal murder of a woman and mother, was in itself an act directed against our country and against the Russian authorities. This murder deals a far greater blow to the authorities in Russia, and in Chechnya, to which she devoted much of her recent professional work, than did any of her publications. This is very clear to everyone in Russia. But, as I said, no matter what the motives behind the perpetrators’ actions, they are criminals and they must be identified, caught and punished. We will do everything necessary to ensure that this is done.—Vladimir Putin, News Conference in Germany, 2006

“The Best Solitary Company in the World”

I Mean the Book

I Mean the Book

Here is the best solitary company in the world, and in this particular chiefly excelling any other, that in my study I am sure to converse with none but wise men; but abroad it is impossible for me to avoid the society of fools. What an advantage have I, by this good fellowship, that, besides the help which I receive from hence, in reference to my life after this life, I can enjoy the life of so many ages before I lived! — that I can be acquainted with the passages of three or four thousand years ago, as if they were the weekly occurrences! Here, without travelling so far as Endor, I can call up the ablest spirits of those times, the learnedest philosophers, the wisest counsellors, the greatest generals, and make them serviceable to me. I can make bold with the best jewels they have in their treasury, with the same freedom that the Israelites borrowed of the Egyptians, and, without suspicion of felony, make use of them as mine own. I can here, without trespassing, go into their vineyards and not only eat my fill of their grapes for my pleasure, but put up as much as I will in my vessel, and store it up for my profit and advantage.—William Waller, Divine Meditations: Meditation Upon the Contentment I Have in My Books and Study

Against Oligarchy

Can’t Be Bribed?

Can’t Be Bribed?

You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor. A Christian may consistently say, “I respect that man’s rank, although he takes bribes.” But a Christian cannot say, as all modern men are saying at lunch and breakfast, “a man of that rank would not take bribes.” For it is a part of Christian dogma that any man in any rank may take bribes.—G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

G. K. Chesterton vs Conservatism

G. K. Chesterton

G. K. Chesterton

We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things. An almost unnatural vigilance is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity with which human institutions grow old. It is the custom in passing romance and journalism to talk of men suffering under old tyrannies. But, as a fact, men have almost always suffered under new tyrannies; under tyrannies that had been public liberties hardly twenty years before. Thus England went mad with joy over the patriotic monarchy of Elizabeth; and then (almost immediately afterwards) went mad with rage in the trap of the tyranny of Charles the First. So, again, in France the monarchy became intolerable, not just after it had been tolerated, but just after it had been adored. The son of Louis the well-beloved was Louis the guillotined. So in the same way in England in the nineteenth century the Radical manufacturer was entirely trusted as a mere tribune of the people, until suddenly we heard the cry of the Socialist that he was a tyrant eating the people like bread. So again, we have almost up to the last instant trusted the newspapers as organs of public opinion. Just recently some of us have seen (not slowly, but with a start) that they are obviously nothing of the kind. They are, by the nature of the case, the hobbies of a few rich men. We have not any need to rebel against antiquity; we have to rebel against novelty. It is the new rulers, the capitalist or the editor, who really hold up the modern world. There is no fear that a modern king will attempt to override the constitution; it is more likely that he will ignore the constitution and work behind its back; he will take no advantage of his kingly power; it is more likely that he will take advantage of his kingly powerlessness, of the fact that he is free from criticism and publicity. For the king is the most private person of our time. It will not be necessary for any one to fight again against the proposal of a censorship of the press. We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press.—G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Books To Be Buried With

Samuel Butler

Samuel Butler

I see they packed the volume of Shakespeare that he had near him when he died in a little tin box and buried it with him. If they had to bury it they should have either not packed it at all, or, at the least, in a box of silver-gilt. But his friends should have taken it out of the bed when they saw the end was near. It was not necessary to emphasize the fact that the ruling passion for posing was strong with him in death. If I am reading, say, Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday up to my last conscious hours, I trust my friends will take it out and put it in the waste-paper basket when they see I have no further use for it. If, however, they insist on burying it with me, say in an an old sardine-box, let them do it at their own risk, and may God remember it against them in that day.—Samuel Butler, Notebooks

Against Speed Reading

PICEdgar-Allan-Poe-stamp(1)I have seen many computations respecting the greatest amount of erudition attainable by an individual in his life-time; but these computations are falsely based, and fall infinitely beneath the truth. It is true that, in general, we retain, we remember to available purpose, scarcely one-hundredth part of what we read; yet there are minds which not only retain all receipts, but keep them at compound interest forever. Again:—were every man supposed to read out, he could read, of course, very little, even in half a century; for, in such case, each individual word must be dwelt upon in some degree. But, in reading to ourselves, at the ordinary rate of what is called “light reading,” we scarcely touch one word in ten. And, even physically considered, knowledge breeds knowledge, as gold gold; for he who reads really much, finds his capacity to read increase in geometrical ratio. The helluo librorum [“glutton of books”] will but glance at the page which detains the ordinary reader some minutes; and the difference in the absolute reading (its uses considered), will be in favor of the helluo, who will have winnowed the matter of which the tyro mumbled both the seeds and the chaff. A deep-rooted and strictly continuous habit of reading will, with certain classes of intellect, result in an instinctive and seemingly magnetic appreciation of a thing written; and now the student reads by pages just as other men by words. Long years to come, with a careful analysis of the mental process, may even render this species of appreciation a common thing. It may be taught in the schools of our descendants of the tenth or twentieth generation. It may become the method of the mob of the eleventh or twenty-first. And should these matters come to pass—as they will—there will be in them no more legitimate cause for wonder than there is, to-day, in the marvel that, syllable by syllable, men comprehend what, letter by letter, I now trace upon this page.—Edgar Allan Poe, Marginalia

On Being Always Right

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin

[H]aving lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions, even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men, indeed, as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error. Steele, a Protestant, in a dedication, tells the Pope, that the only difference between our churches, in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines, is, ‘the Church of Rome is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the wrong.’ But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who, in a dispute with her sister, said, ‘I don’t know how it happens, sister, but I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right — il n’y a que moi qui a toujours raison.’—Benjamin Franklin, speech to the Constitutional Convention (September 17, 1787), in Debates on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution in the Convention Held at Philadelphia in 1787

The Light of Civilization

Traditionally, Chinese scholars, men of letters, artists would give an inspiring name to their residences, hermitages, libraries and studios. Sometimes they did not actually possess residences, hermitages, libraries or studios—not even a roof over their heads—but the existence or non-existence of a material support for a name never appeared to them a very relevant issue. And I wonder if one of the deepest seductions of Chinese culture is not related to this conjuring power with which it vests the Written Word. I am not dealing here with esoteric abstractions, but with a living reality. Let me give you just one modest example, which hit me long ago, when I was an ignorant young student.

In Singapore, I often patronized a small movie theatre which showed old films of Peking operas. The theatre itself was a flimsy open-air structure planted in a paddock by the side of the road (at that time, Singapore still had a countryside): a wooden fence enclosed two dozen rows of seats—long planks resting on trestles. In the rainy season, towards the end of the afternoon, there was always a short heavy downpour, and when the show started, just after dark, the planks often had not yet had time to dry; thus, at the box-office, with our ticket, you received a thick old newspaper to cushion your posterior against the humidity. Everything in the theatre was shoddy and ramshackle—everything except the signpost with the theatre’s name hanging above the entrance: two characters written in a huge and generous calligraphy, Wen Guang—which could be translated as “Light of Civilization” or “Light of the Written-Word” (it is the same thing). However, later on in the show, sitting under the starry sky and watching on screen Ma Liangliang give his sublime interpretation of the part of the wisest minister of the Three Kingdoms (third century AD), you realized that—after all—this “Light of Civilization” was no hollow boast.—Simon Leys, Introduction to The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays

Either Way Is Okay

Shinto Shrine

Shinto Shrine

It is a series of low buildings among trees. Space in a shrine is horizontal and not, as in a cathedral, vertical. In a church, space is confined. It must struggle upward, having no place else to go. In a shrine, space is spread. There are no high walls, no tight enclosures. The space is a grove and this grove seems so endless that it might be the world itself.

The sky seems low, near. There are long expanses of lawn or grove among the buildings. One is not enclosed, nor is one directed. One is liberated, and almost always alone.

Shrine prayer, as I have said, is not communal prayer. It is solitary prayer. It is not a state—it is a function. It lasts only a minute or so and it is spontaneous. One does not enter, as in churches, or descend, as in mosques. The way to the shrine is through a grove, along a walk, through nature itself, nature intensified. Through these trees, over this moss, one wanders to shrines.

This casual, unremarked acceptance of nature speaks to something very deep within us. It speaks directly to our own nature, more and more buried in this artificial and inhuman century. Shinto speaks to us, to something in us which is deep, and permanent.

Certainly we feel—which is to say, recognize—more here than in smiling Buddhism with its hopeful despair, more than in fierce man-made Islam with its heavenly palaces on earth, more than in the strange and worldly tabernacles of the Hebrews or in the confident, vaunting, expectant Christian churches.

This religion, Shinto, is the only one that neither teaches nor attempts to convert. It simply exists, and if the pious come, that is good, and if they do not, then that too is good, for this is a natural religion and nature is profoundly indifferent.—Donald Richie, The Inland Sea

Texts: Postwar Rationing in the UK

Fuel Ration Book

Fuel Ration Book

Here the ego is at half-pressure; most of us are not men and women but members of a vast, seedy, overworked, over-legislated neuter class, with our drab clothes, our ration books and murder stories, our envious, strict, old-world apathies—a care-worn people. And the symbol of this mood is London, now the largest, saddest and dirtiest of great cities, with its miles of unpainted, half-inhabited houses, its chopless chop-houses, its beerless pubs, its once vivid quarters losing all personality, its squares bereft of elegance … its crowds mooning around the stained green wicker of the cafeterias in their shabby raincoats, under a sky permanently dull and lowering like a metal dish-cover.—Cyril Connolly, Horizon (1947)