Quote of the Day

Imagination without taste

Nothing is more fearful than imagination without taste.

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
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Chamfort

Pleasure can be supported by an illusion; but happiness rests upon truth.

—Sébastien-Roch Nicolas De Chamfort (1741-1794)

How can I have lived this long and never have come across Nicolas de Chamfort before? He had a rare quality of being able to encapsulate truth in a well-formed and effortless aphorism… and it lead to his death.

His joke about brotherhood in the French Revolution ("Be my brother or I will kill you") lead to his arrest. Shortly thereafter he committed suicide. He should have known that revolutions are without humor.
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Needing blue…

I decided to start anew—to strip away what I had been taught, to accept as true my own thinking. This was one of the best times of my life. There was no one around to look at what I was doing, no one interested, no one to say anything about it one way or another. I was alone and singularly free, working into my own, unknown—no one to satisfy but myself. I began with charcoal and paper and decided not to use any color until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white. I believe it was June before I needed blue.

—Georgia O'Keefe
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Not all books…

It is not all books that are as dull as their readers.

—Henry David Thoreau
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The Triple Fool

I didn't plan this, but perhaps my Quote of the Day from August 27 caused me to seek out John Donne's (1572-1631) poem The Triple Fool from his songs and sonnets. (More about the link between the two below.) I've loved Donne ever since reading The Flea and Death Be Not Proud while in high school.

Donne's work rarely pierces the modern cultural bubble, but there was a remarkable film from 2001 in which his work figured prominently: Wit, starring Emma Thompson and directed by Mike Nichols, is an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson. (Read a stimulating conversation about the play between Ms. Edson and Jim Leher here.) I'll say no more about the movie now except that it's brilliant.

In The Triple Fool, Donne calls himself a fool for loving and then again for writing about it in poetry. Well, perhaps that's not so bad: he tames his grief in verse. Maybe that's an example of art serving as the guardian of sorrow, as I wrote the other day.

But then, to make things worse, Donne complains that someone sets his poetry to music! His grief is set free and amplified for all to hear. He becomes a fool for the third time!

Here's the complete poem, taken from the Poems of John Donne, Vol. 1, edited by E. K. Chambers (London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896):

The Triple Fool

I am two fools, I know,
    For loving, and for saying so
        In whining poetry ;
But where's that wise man, that would not be I,
        If she would not deny ?
Then as th' earth's inward narrow crooked lanes
    Do purge sea water's fretful salt away,
I thought, if I could draw my pains
    Through rhyme's vexation, I should them allay.
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.
    But when I have done so,
    Some man, his art and voice to show,
        Doth set and sing my pain ;
And, by delighting many, frees again
        Grief, which verse did restrain.
To love and grief tribute of verse belongs,
    But not of such as pleases when 'tis read.
Both are increasèd by such songs,
    For both their triumphs so are published,
And I, which was two fools, do so grow three.
Who are a little wise, the best fools be.

(One of Donne's metaphors doesn't work today: it used to be thought that salt was purged from the "narrow crooked lanes" of water as they made their way inland through the marshes to create fresh water rivers.)

My interest in all this stems from my curiosity about who set Donne's poetry to music. It was a common Elizabethan custom to take a popular ballad tune (e.g. Go From My Window, Fortune My Foe) and write new words to transmit news of the day (sensational crimes, hangings); I gather it was equally customary to find a tune whose meter matched that of a poem and join the two, although I imagine this would be quite difficult with Donne's poetry.

I've seen reference to settings by William Corkine and Giovanni Coperario, but have not seen the music. I've poured through my scores of John Dowland's (1563 -1626) lute songs and have found only two with texts by Donne: Sweet Stay Awhile and To Ask For All Thy Love.
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Guardian of sorrows

Art can sometimes be the guardian of our sorrows, holding them for us until we are ready to experience them fully.

—unknown
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Wooden Houses

Fortunate are the nations that can build wooden houses. Because wood breathes, transforms, deteriorates, like us. It is also important to have flowers and plants where we live, because they breathe, too. Contemplating a flower for three seconds can be a captivating solitary journey back to original geometry, which is always revitalizing.

—Henry Skolimowski
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Paths

If you see your path laid out in front of you—Step one, Step two, Step three—you only know one thing… it is not your path. Your path is created in the moment of action. If you can see it laid out in front of you, you can be sure it is someone else’s path. That is why you see it so clearly.

—Joseph Campbell
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Appropriate Abandon

When classical music can no longer be played with appropriate abandon, performances lose the capacity to raise the spirits of performers and their audiences, to transport them into a higher realm of existence. Prudence, caution, and calculation, so prominent in everyday life but so inimical to the spirit of the arts, come to shape performances as they shape everything else.

—my adaption/transposition of a comment by Christopher Lasch about sports to music (from The Culture of Narcissism, 1979)
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Nothing is more…

Nothing is more unpleasant than a virtuous person with a mean mind.

—Walter Bagehot (1826-1877)
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This slow trek…

I know this, with sure and certain knowledge: a man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. This is why, after working and producing for twenty years, I still live with the idea that my work has not even begun.

—Albert Camus
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Fame

Fame is the sum of misunderstandings that accrue around a name.

—Rainer Maria Rilke
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Beauty

The best people posses a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed.

—Ernest Hemingway (A Farewell To Arms)
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Snatching the eternal…

Snatching the eternal from the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence.

—Tennessee Williams (Eccentricities of a Nightingale)
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To a stranger…

Walt Whitman’s poem “To a stranger” from Leaves of Grass (begun in 1855 and updated continuously until 1892):

Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon
you,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes
to me as of a dream,)
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall'd as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate,
chaste, matured,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with
me,
I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not
yours only not left my body mine only,
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we
pass, you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit
alone or wake at night alone,
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you.

Who hasn’t seen a face in a crowd, passed by someone, or looked into a stranger’s eyes and had one’s imagination tumble into a reverie of oneness. Whitman was a singular figure in American literature and he would be horrified to learn that there is a service area named after him on the New Jersey Turnpike.
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Coming soon!

Pristine Madness is a new blog that will explore creative expression in its manifest forms, historical and current: the arts, relationships, intellect, society, education, and more than I can imagine right now.

Perhaps Robert Frost’s statement about poems could be applied to this blog: “A poem… begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness… It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.” Pristine Madness starts as a thought, a feeling, a confusion, a small piece of clarity, a connection made, something imagined—all things seeking the light of expression.

The most difficult thing for modern men and women to do is to view the mechanisms of their own age—to say nothing of actually understanding their effects. More commonly, we view the world, past and present, through the small portals of contemporary experience. What is more troubling is that these portals themselves are thought to be incredibly large lenses through which we can view truth. Pristine Madness will explore what we’re seeing, but also how and why we are seeing it.

Subscribe to the RSS feed and come along with me…
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