"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Sunday, November 13, 2011

What I'm Reading Right Now: Decline and Fall

And here's a quote from the book - a description of, I guess, what it means to be a functioning individual in society - that I found striking and a bit sad.

"For an evening at least the shadow that has flitted about this narrative under the name of Paul Pennyfeather materialized into the solid figure of an intelligent, well-educated, well-conducted young man, a man who could be trusted to use his vote at a general election with discretion and proper detachment, whose opinion on a ballet or a critical essay was rather better than most people's, who could order a dinner without embarrassment and in a creditable French accent, who could be trusted to see to luggage at foreign railway stations, and might be expected to acquit himself with decision and decorum in all the emergencies of civilized life."

I found this striking because some of it seems very true, but sad because such things sometimes do seem very hard and also because other things are conspicuously absent - like friendship, love, good health, curiosity, or a sense of humor. Waugh doesn't specify that Paul should be able to enjoy his dinner or the ballet, or that his life might be anything other than a series of these various "emergencies of civilized life" - is life nothing but challenges to one's ability to uphold civilization with decorum? Waugh is probably expressing something quite particular to British culture in his era. It certainly isn't the exact portrait of life today, but it's not quite that foreign either.

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