Thursday, December 15, 2011

One of the most unexpectedly enjoyable books I read this year was Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860). It's a wry, chatty and opinionated masterpiece of cultural history that is so full of great passages that I can hardly decide what to put up here. So here are a few anecdotes selected almost at random:

"The citizens of a certain town (Siena seems to be meant) had once an officer in their service who had freed them from foreign aggression; daily they took counsel how to recompense him, and concluded that no reward in their power was great enough, not even if they made him lord of the city. At last one of them rose and said, 'Let us kill him and then worship him as our patron saint.' And so they did, following the example set by the Roman senate with Romulus."

"The famous Cardinal Ippolito Medici, bastard of Giuliano, Duke of Nemours, kept at his strange court a troop of barbarians who talked no less than twenty different languages, and who were all of them perfect specimens of their races. Among them were incomparable voltigeurs of the best blood of the North African Moors, Tartar bowmen, Negro wrestlers, Indian divers, and Turks, who generally accompanied the Cardinal on his hunting expeditions. When he was overtaken by an early death (1535), this motley band carried the corpse on their shoulders from Itri to Rome, and mingled with the general mourning for the open-handed Cardinal their medley of tongues and violent gesticulations."

"These people were far from being irreligious. A herdsman once appeared in great trouble at the confessional, avowing that, while making cheese during Lent, a few drops of milk had found their way into his mouth. The confessor, skilled in the customs of the country, discovered in the course of his examination that the penitent and his friends were in the practice of robbing and murdering travellers, but that, through the force of habit, this usage gave rise to no twinges of conscience within them."

"Ermes Bentivoglio sent an assassin after Cocle, because the unlucky metoposcopist [Cocle] had unwillingly prophesied to him that he [Bentivoglio] would die an exile in battle. The murderer seems to have derided the dying man [Cocle] in his last moments, saying that Cocle himself had foretold him he [the assassin] would shortly commit an infamous murder."

"Cardano admits that he cheated at play, that he was vindictive, incapable of all compunction, purposely cruel in his speech. He confesses it without impudence and without feigned contrition, without even wishing to make himself an object of interest, but with the same simple and sincere love of fact which guided him in his scientific researches. And, what is to us the most repulsive of all, the old man, after the most shocking experiences and with his confidence in his fellowmen gone, finds himself after all tolerably happy and comfortable. He has still left him a grandson, immense learning, the fame of his works, money, rank and credit, powerful friends, the knowledge of many secrets, and, best of all, belief in God. After this, he counts the teeth in his head, and finds that he has fifteen."
"One way of solving the problem of existence, after all, is to become so closely acquainted with things and individuals we once saw from further away as being full of beauty and mystery, that we realize they are devoid of both: therein lies one of the modes of mental hygiene available to us, which though it may not be the most recommendable, can certainly afford us a measure of equanimity for getting through life and – since it enables us to have no regrets, by assuring us we have had the best of things, and that the best of things was not up to much – in resigning us to death."

from In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust
"Cold narrow scalpels attack the shapeless bloody blob as it lies there in your chest like a live thing in a hot puddle, a cauldron of tangled juicy stew, convulsing, shuddering with a periodic sob, trying to dodge the knives, undressed of the sanitary pod God or whoever never meant human hands to touch. Then when the blood has been detoured to the gleaming pumping machine just like those in those horrible old Frankenstein movies with Boris Karloff the heart stops beating. You see it happen: your heart lies there dead in its soupy puddle. You, the natural you, are technically dead. A machine is living for you while the surgeons’ hands in their condomlike latex gloves fiddle and slice and knit away. Harry has trouble believing how his life is tied to all this mechanics – that the me that talks inside him all the time scuttles like a water-striding bug above this pond of body fluids and their slippery conduits. How could the flame of him ever have ignited out of such wet straw?"

from Rabbit at Rest by John Updike

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"After the Nevada State Prison warden, George W. Cowing, was unable to find five men to form a firing squad, a shooting machine was requisitioned and built to carry out the execution."

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

"If we look through the aperture which we have opened up onto the absolute, what we see there is a rather menacing power – something insensible, and capable of destroying both things and worlds, of bringing forth monstrous absurdities, yet also of never doing anything, of realizing every dream, but also every nightmare, of engendering random and frenetic transformations, or conversely, of producing a universe that remains motionless down to its ultimate recesses, like a cloud bearing the fiercest storms, then the eeriest bright spells, if only for an interval of disquieting calm. We see an omnipotence equal to that of the Cartesian God, and capable of anything, even the inconceivable; but an omnipotence that has become autonomous, without norms, blind, devoid of the other divine perfections, a power with neither goodness nor wisdom, ill-disposed to reassure thought about the veracity of its distinct ideas. We see something akin to Time, but a Time that is inconceivable for physics, since it is capable of destroying, without cause or reason, every physical law, just as it is inconceivable for metaphysics, since it is capable of destroying every determinate entity, even a god, even God. This is not a Heraclitean time, since it is not the eternal law of becoming, but rather the eternal and lawless possible becoming of every law. It is a Time capable of destroying even becoming itself by bringing forth, perhaps forever, fixity, stasis, and death."

from After Finitude by Quentin Meillassoux trans. Ray Brassier