Grits and Tamales

Life in the Deep South, by Gabriel Aguilera

Category Archives: Proust

Lincoln Selects John Pope

From Foote’s, The Civil War (V1), a passage on the selection of General John Pope for command of the Army of the Potomac. It shows Lincoln’s slyness, his willingness to task war-fighting to a class of men that Churchill tagged as “stinkers and cheats,” because these were sometimes necessary to win wars (see below).

“John Pope was the man. Halleck had praised him so highly he had lost him. Indeed, for months now the news from that direction had seemed to indicate that the formula for victory, so elusive here on the seaboard, had been discovered by the generals in the West — in which case, as Lincoln and Stanton saw it, the thing to do was bring one of them East and give him a chance to apply it. Grant’s record having been tarnished by Shiloh and the subsequent rumors of negligence and whiskey, Pope was the more or less obvious choice, not only because of Island Ten and Halleck’s praise of his agressiveness during the campaign against Corinth, but also because Lincoln, as a prairie lawyer pleading cases in Pope’s father district court, had known him back in Illinois. There were objections. Montgomery Blair, for instance, warned that old Judge Pope “was a flatterer, a deceiver, a liar and a trickster; all the Popes are so.” But the President could not see that these were necessarily drawback characteristics in a military man. While admitting that the general’s ‘infirmity’ when it came to walking the chalk-line of truth, he protested that “a liar might be brave and have skill as an officer.” Also, perhaps as a result of a belief in the Westerner’s ability to combine effectively the several family traits Blair had warned of, he credited him with ‘great cunning,’ a quality Lincoln had learned to prize highly as a result of his brush with Stonewall Jackson in the Valley. So Pope was sent for.”

Contrast Lincoln to Churchill, who remarked to Field Marshall Dill during WWII: “It isn’t only the good boys who help to win the wars; it is the sneaks and the stinkers as well.” Another officer later wrote of Churchill: “Churchill had a weakness for sneaks and stinkers of all kinds…”



Proust Explains Love

One of the tell-tale signs of true love is that it is so intense that it is impossible to discuss precisely what you feel, the full scope and sum of your fear and hope, with the expectation that she will fathom the scale of the storm in your breast. This is the task of the great artist to put into verse, brush onto a canvas, or chisel into marble.

Meet Proust, who puts it into lapidary prose:

 The belief that a person has a share in an unknown life to which his or her love may win us admission is, of all the prerequisites of love, the one which it values most highly and which makes it set little store by all the rest. Even those women who claim to judge a man by his looks alone, see in those looks the emanation of a special way of life. That is why they fall in love with soldiers or with firemen; the uniform makes them less particular about the face; they feel they are embracing beneath the gleaming breastplate a heart different from the rest, more gallant, more adventurous, more tender; and so it is that a young king or a crown prince may make the most gratifying conquests in the countries that he visits, and yet lack entirely that regular and classic profile which would be indispensable, I dare say, for a stockbroker.”

My Favorite Books and Why

Below are my favorite 10 books of all time, chosen on three criteria: gravitas, fun, and poetry. I first list them according to category and assign points for placement. Next I do a tally and list according to points earned in each (un-weighted) category.

Finally, I list my favorites in order. Interestingly, only Melville does not crack the top five on any of the lists. Perhaps I should only have a top nine? Only Shakespeare and Homer make the top five on every single category. Proust takes a big climb on subjective criteria. I have read the first volume recently and look forward to the rest. Dante takes a dive only because it’s not one I have studied with vigor.

All in all, these books are wondrous. They are to me indispensable and, in a few cases (The Bible, Shakespeare, and Cervantes) proved thoroughly life-altering. But I love them all, more than I am capable expressing in words {see my terrible poem below as proof of this}. Here is a random bullet on each that jumps in mind:

  • Hamlet tells Horatio that there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow
  • Jesus chases the tax collectors from the temple…and a herd of swine into the sea.
  • Don Quixote in love.
  • Proust explains why he loves Bergotte.
  • Achilles comforts Priam.
  • Foote peerlessly portrays Lincoln’s kindliness — and his Machiavellian vigor.
  • Machiavelli instructs us to seek wisdom in literature, biography if one is an aspiring prince.
  • Virgil chides Dante for being slothy and prods him along with the memory of Beatriz.
  • Whitman reminds us that the powerful play goes on.
  • Ishmael realizes that he’d rather be in bed with sober pagan than a drunk Christian.

The Lists:

Gravitas: Moral instruction and philosophical insight

  1. The Bible (10)
  2. Shakespeare, Tragedies and Henriad (9)
  3. Cervantes, Don Quixote (8)
  4. Homer, The Odyssey & Iliad (7)
  5. Machievelli, The Prince and Discourses (6)
  6. Dante, the Divine Comedy (5)
  7. Foote, The Civil War (4)
  8. Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (3)
  9. Whitman, Leaves of Grass (2)
  10. Melville, Moby Dick (1)

Fun: The most joyous to read

  1. Cervantes, Don Quixote (10)
  2. Shakespeare, Tragedies and Henriad (9)
  3. Homer, The Odyssey & Iliad (8)
  4. Foote, The Civil War (7)
  5. Machievelli, The Prince and Discourses (6)
  6. The Bible (5)
  7. Dante, the Divine Comedy (4)
  8. Melville, Moby Dick (3)
  9. Whitman, Leaves of Grass (2)
  10. Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (1)

Poetry: Because in fifty years I think I would love to be able to recite it all by heart

  1. Shakespeare, Tragedies and Henriad (10)
  2. Homer, The Odyssey & Iliad (9)
  3. Dante, the Divine Comedy (8)
  4. Whitman, Leaves of Grass (7)
  5. Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (6)
  6. The Bible (5)
  7. Melville, Moby Dick (4)
  8. Foote, The Civil War (3)
  9. Cervantes, Don Quixote (2)
  10. Machievelli, The Prince and Discourses (1)

Overall according to the point system:

  1. Shakespeare, Tragedies and Henriad (28 points)
  2. Homer, The Odyssey & Iliad (24)
  3. The Bible (20)
  4. Cervantes, Don Quixote (20)
  5. Dante, the Divine Comedy (17)
  6. Foote, The Civil War (14)
  7. Machievelli, The Prince and Discourses (13)
  8. Whitman, Leaves of Grass (11)
  9. Proust, Remembrances of Things Past (10)
  10. Melville, Moby Dick (8)

Subjective: In order, what I today would pick to have with me in the dungeon

  1. Shakespeare, Tragedies and Henriad (27 points)
  2. The Bible (20)
  3. Proust, Remembrances of Things Past (10)
  4. Cervantes, Don Quixote (20)
  5. Foote, The Civil War (14)
  6. Homer, The Odyssey & Iliad (25)
  7. Machievelli, The Prince and Discourses (13)
  8. Dante, the Divine Comedy (17)
  9. Whitman, Leaves of Grass (11)
  10. Melville, Moby Dick (8)

An awful poem from the heart:

Abandoned down below for fifty years alone,

From these forced I to choose just one

I’d pick for gravitas, for rhyme, for fun.

The last shall not be under sold, by me or time;

For this explains why Russians fail to shine,

Why Proust and Foote and Melville are sublime.

For fifty years alone all huddled in my cell,

For each itself there is no deeper well.

Proust on memory

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

Proust Quote for Mother’s Day

And so I must set forth without viaticum; must climb each step of the staircase ‘against my heart,’ as the saying is, climbing in opposition to my heart’s desire , which was to return to my mother, since she had not, by her kiss, given my heart leave to accompany me forth. That hateful staircase, up which I always passed with such dismay, gave out a smell of varnish which had to some extent absorbed, made definite and fixed the special quality of sorrow that I felt each evening, and made it perhaps even more cruel to my sensibility because, when it assumed this olfactory guise, my intellect was powerless to resist it. When we have gone to sleep with a maddening toothache and are conscious of it only as a little girl whom we attempt, time after time, to pull out of the water, or as a line of Molière which we repeat incessantly to ourselves, it is a great relief to wake up , so that our intelligence can disentangle the idea of toothache from any artificial semblance of heroism or rhythmic cadence.

Proust, Marcel (2012-05-17). Swann’s Way (p. 22). . Kindle Edition.

Swann’s Way

Sometimes, too , just as Eve was created from a rib of Adam, so a woman would come into existence while I was sleeping, conceived from some strain in the position of my limbs. Formed by the appetite that I was on the point of gratifying, she it was, I imagined, who offered me that gratification. My body, conscious that its own warmth was permeating hers, would strive to become one with her, and I would awake.

Proust, Marcel (2012-05-17). Swann’s Way (p. 5). . Kindle Edition.


But then, even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is created by the thoughts of other people. Even the simple act which we describe as “seeing some one we know” is, to some extent, an intellectual process . We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we have already formed about him, and in the complete picture of him which we compose in our minds those ideas have certainly the principal place. In the end they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope, so that each time we see the face or hear the voice it is our own ideas of him which we recognise and to which we listen.

Proust, Marcel (2012-05-17). Swann’s Way (p. 15). . Kindle Edition.


What I am up to in 2014

In 2014 my goals are to better examine my life and dreams as they are and to examine these daily with patience, understanding, and exuberance. I hope to be kinder, less aloof, and more compassionate towards others.

My concrete goals are to improve my physical fitness, eat more fruits and vegetables, improve at my vocation, and forge stronger relations with loved ones, new and old.

“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us.” -Proust

“The most trifling thing…can open up a universe.” On Proust.

“The most trifling thing…can open up a universe.” -Pico Ayer

Shelby Foote talks briefly of Proust at the 13 minute mark or so in this:

Proust was an extremely important author for Foote. He read the Frenchman’s tome nine times, to reward himself for a job well done whenever he felt he had earned it.

I have not read a sentence of Proust. This post, on the commonalities between Proust and Buddhism, was immensely enjoyable as well as thought-provoking. One of these years I will have to tackle this great work.

Here are some Proust quotes fished from this article that I thought worth noting down.

“So long as you distract your mind from its dreams, it will not know them for what they are; you will always be being taken in by the appearance of things, because you will not have grasped their true nature.”

“We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us.”

“If there were no such thing as habit, life might appear delightful to those of us who are constantly under the threat of death—that is to say, to all mankind.”

“We ought at least, for prudence, never to speak of ourselves, because that is a subject on which we may be sure that other people’s views are never in accordance with our own.”

“What one knows does not belong to oneself…”

“It is not common sense that is ‘the commonest thing in the world…It is human kindness.”

“[I]deas, works and the rest, which he counted for far less — [this great artist] would have given gladly to anyone who understood him.”

“One short-sighted man says of another, ‘But he can scarcely open his eyes!’”

“We ought at least, for prudence, never to speak of ourselves, because that is a subject on which we may be sure that other people’s views are never in accordance with our own.”

“What one knows does not belong to oneself…”

“In the state of mind in which we `observe,’we are a long way below the level to which we rise when we create.”

“Before we experience solitude, our whole perception is to know to what extent we can reconcile it with certain pleasures which cease to be pleasures as soon as we have experienced it.”

“For in this world of ours where everything withers, everything perishes, there is a thing that decays, that crumbles into dust even more completely, leaving behind still fewer traces of itself than beauty: namely, grief.”

This is the last paragraph from Piko’s terrific essay, cited above.

“I couldn’t tell you much about the plot of À la recherche, its characters, its events, anything of its surface. Proust’s genius, like that of his compatriot Cartier-Bresson (who called himself “an accidental Buddhist”), is to register every detail of the surface and yet never get caught up in the superficial. Here is the rare master who saw that surface was merely the way depth often expressed itself, the trifle in which truth was hidden thanks to mischievous circumstance (or, others would say, the logic of the universe). It takes stamina, bloody-mindedness, concentration, and a fanatic’s devotion to stare the mind down and see how rarely it sees the present, for all the alternative realities it can conjure out of memory or hope. Proust had the sense to belabor us with little theology, academic philosophy or overt epistemology; yet nearly every sentence in his epic work takes us into the complications, the false fronts, the self-betrayals of the heart and mind and so becomes what could almost be called an anatomy of the soul. I’m not sure sitting under a tree in Asia 2,500 years ago would have produced anything different.”

Finding Shelby Foote

I actually ran across Shelby Foote quite by accident several years ago when I was living in Los Angeles.  I spent a lot of time on the freeways so I was always in the market for something good to listen to in the car.  At the time I was reading presidential biographies and had read up quite a bit on Lincoln, TR, and several others.  I pretty much picked up The Civil War: A Narrative on a whim.

Foote’s Civil War, on audio, floored me for several reasons. I did not notice when I first listened to it — I have listened all the way through 3Xs and read it once  — that Foote is actually a novelist in addition to, as James M. McPherson notes, a fine historian. [Side note: McPherson pays Foote the highest compliment in his Battle Cry of Freedom by closely following several of his battle accounts].  Foote brought the Civil War’s politics, battle scenes, and, above all, the characters to life in my mind’s eye.   All is told from the perspective of soldiers, citizens, and statesmen.  Their views are moderated and edited by an a narrator who relates the story while giving the impression that he is taking it all in with the reader as he goes.  He too, it seems, is entertained, angered, bemused, awed and heartbroken as events unfold.  He, too, develops strong views on the characters and events.  For example, he manifests a deep sympathy to Jefferson Davis that I found difficult to share but readily understood.  He makes you appreciate why Lee was so beloved, but also forces you to appreciate how utterly human he was.  Later, Foote says that Gettysburg is the price that the South paid for Lee.  This is palpable in the narrative.  He also has abiding, albeit grudging, respect and admiration for Grant.  Lincoln’s star shines brightest in the Civil War even though the narrator’s sympathies lean slightly towards the South.

The Civil War, let it be said, is a literary masterpiece filled with one gorgeous sentence after another. It is clear that Foote is steeped in Homer and Shakespeare.  Others note that it is most like Proust – which I have never read. My  Shelby_Foote_Q  Twitter feed lets me pick out snippets of things in the book that I love. It gives me an excuse to keep perusing those gorgeous sentences and paragraphs that really do succeed in putting you right next to to Lincoln and Davis every bit as much as Grant and Lee.

About a month ago,  I finally caught a bit of the Burns documentary.  What I saw was wonderful, but what I watched paled in comparison to the imagery and beauty that Foote stamped on my brain.  Burns, too, pays Foote the highest compliment by outlining pieces of the documentary closely on Foote’s narrative.  The friend I was watching with was startled when I anticipated lines, quotes, and events throughout the show.

Shelby Foote

Shelby Foote is my favorite Southern author.  Heck, he might be my favorite American author.  See him interviewed at his home here.  The first half hour is definitely worth watching.  He speaks of writing and his favorite authors, including Proust and Shakespeare.  He wrote about 500 words a day when writing the Civil War, A Narrative (2,968-page, 1.2 million-word history).

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