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Tolstoy on power, logic, and pathological self-belief, 100 years ago:

But, even though he was convinced that he had acted as he ought, he was left with some sort of unpleasant aftertaste, and, to stifle that feeling, he began thinking about something that always soothed him: what a great man he was.


Despite the fact that the plan of a slow movement into enemy territory by means of cutting down the forests and destroying provisions was the plan of Ermolov and Velyaminov, and the complete opposite of Nicholas's plan, according to which it was necessary to take over Shamil's residence at once and devastate that nest of robbers, and according to which the Dargo expedition of 1845 had been undertaken, at the cost of so many human lives -- despite that, Nicholas also ascribed to himself the plan of slow movement, the progressive cutting down of forests, and the destruction of provisions. It would seem that, in order to believe the plan of slow movement, the cutting down of forests and the destruction of provisions was his plan, it would be necessary to conceal the fact that he had precisely insisted on the completely opposite military undertaking of the year forty-five. But he did not conceal it and was proud of both his plan of the expedition of the year forty-five and of the plan of slow movement forward, despite the fact that these two plans obviously contradicted each other. The constant, obvious flattery, contrary to all evidence, of the people around him had brought him to the point that he no longer saw his contradictions, no longer conformed his actions and words to reality, logic, or even simple common sense, but was fully convinced that all his orders, however senseless unjust, and inconsistent with each other, became sensible, just, and consistent with each other only because he gave them.

Hadji Murat, 1912
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When people ask me who my favourite author is, I usually say Patrick O'Brian, because it's an impossible question, and because it's basically true. I recently read his 1953 pre-Aubrey-Maturin book Richard Temple, which is excellent -- if typically abrupt at the end -- a really contemplative and dissociative portrait of the life of a young painter. It has plenty of those delightful O'Brian surprises where really important stuff happens between words in the most overlookable places (for instance, the surprise gay: He and Gay had always got along well together, but it was only in the last year that they had been such close friends, drawn together, it must be admitted, by the abominable vice of sodomy.).

Towards the end, and after several periods of greater and lesser moral and financial dissolution, Richard has an encounter with some of his older work.

Let's read it now. )
I love O'Brian's writing for its ineffable intimacy, this kind of rhythmic stepping through characters' psyches. His writing seems so clinical -- and indeed the above passage is probably the most clinical of the whole book -- but that objectivity, that commonsensical mundanity, is such a lie. His books are entirely bent around his protagonists (slipping sweetly between them, in the case of Aubrey and Maturin). He is such a generous writer, so evidently delighting in their passions and joys, from which he draws terrific humour and pathos.

There is less joy and humour in Richard Temple, perhaps because Richard is extraordinarily, and unknowingly, lonely, despite the intense attachments he forms with a succession of men and women. He is recounting his life to himself while he is interred in a POW camp, trying to hang on to his identity in the face of torture, but this backward-looking sets up an essential foreignness, a distance, a search that meanders and loses its way. The Richards of school, of France, of London, of Churleigh, even of Germany, are strangers, connected more by a happenstance of space-time, and less by any concrete Richardness. There is something really curiously hollow at the centre of this book and character, a space in which buzzes about the sneaking fear that connection is impossible, that will is empty, that encounters with people and art are never transformative because there is nothing to transform; a terror with which I empathise keenly as I get older, uglier, and boringer. So I love the above passage for how vivid and visual it is and how forgiving about the past, for how Richard is able to pull a kind of shocking, beautiful unity into being, to sit contentedly with himself if only for a moment.

Certainly Richard Temple is not about any such fucking pablum as "how passive resistance can be a form of courage and what it truly means to be a hero", as the blurb suggests.* It's an excellent book though, if not as comforting as our dear old friends Aubrey and Maturin.


* True heroes, Channel 9 and Telstra have taught me over the last couple of days, are people that can swim really fast, or perhaps do other things fast. Our great nation is currently undergoing the developmental anxiety and trauma of realising that there are other people, who also have heroes, and that our heroes sometimes do not swim as fast as those other heroes. Thus indicating that we have turned five.


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