Orwell Reflects on His School Days

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“It was about a year after I hit Johnny Hale in the face that I left St Cyprian’s for ever. It was the end of a winter term. With a sense of coming out from darkness into sunlight I put on my Old Boy’s tie as we dressed for the journey. I well remember the feeling of emancipation, as though the tie had been at once a badge of manhood and an amulet against Flip’s voice and Sambo’s cane. I was escaping from bondage. It was not that I expected, or even intended, to be any more successful at a public school than I had been at St Cyprian’s. But still, I was escaping. I knew that at a public school there would be more privacy, more neglect, more chance to be idle and self-indulgent and degenerate. For years I had been resolved — unconsciously at first, but consciously later on — that when once my scholarship was won I would ‘slack off’ and cram no longer. This resolve, by the way, was so fully carried out that between the ages of thirteen and twenty-two or three I hardly ever did a stroke of avoidable work…

I base these generalizations on what I can recall of my own childhood out look. Treacherous though memory is, it seems to me the chief means we have of discovering how a child’s mind works. Only by resurrecting our own memories can we realize how incredibly distorted is the child’s vision of the world. Consider this, for example. How would St Cyprian’s appear to me now, if I could go back, at my present age, and see it as it was in 1915? What should I think of Sambo and Flip, those terrible, all-powerful monsters? I should see them as a couple of silly, shallow, ineffectual people, eagerly clambering up a social ladder which any thinking person could see to be on the point of collapse. I would no more be frightened of them than I would be frightened of a dormouse. Moreover, in those days they seemed to me fantastically old, whereas — though of this I am not certain — I imagine they must have been somewhat younger than I am now…

I have never been back to St Cyprian’s. Reunions, old boys’ dinners and such-like leave me something more than cold, even when my memories are friendly. I have never even been down to Eton, where I was relatively happy, though I did once pass through it in 1933 and noted with interest that nothing seemed to have changed, except that the shops now sold radios. As for St Cyprian’s, for years I loathed its very name so deeply that I could not view it with enough detachment to see the significance of the things that happened to me there… And if I went inside and smelt again the inky, dusty smell of the big schoolroom, the rosiny smell of the chapel, the stagnant smell of the swimming bath and the cold reek of the lavatories, I think I should only feel what one invariably feels in revisiting any scene of childhood: How small everything has grown… Now, however, the place is out of my system for good. Its magic works no longer, and I have not even enough animosity left to make me hope that Flip and Sambo are dead or that the story of the school being burnt down was true.”

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Pulled from the ending of George Orwell’s essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” first published in 1952 in the Partisan Review. It’s thought he wrote the essay a few years prior, sometime in early 1947, just before he started working on Nineteen Eighty-Four. There’s a lot of gold in the essay, but I especially like that understated, forgiving note on which he ends.

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Teddy on How Private Secrets Cripple Leaders

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“Traps were set for more than one of us, and if we had walked into these traps our public careers would have ended… A man can of course hold public office, and many a man does hold public office, and lead a public career of a sort, even if there are other men who possess secrets about him which he cannot afford to have divulged. But no man can lead a public career really worth leading, no man can act with rugged independence in serious crises, nor strike at great abuses, nor afford to make powerful and unscrupulous foes, if he is himself vulnerable in his private character. Nor will clean conduct by itself enable a man to render good service. I have always been fond of Josh Billings’s remark that ‘it is much easier to be a harmless dove than a wise serpent.’ There are plenty of decent legislators, and plenty of able legislators; but the blamelessness and the fighting edge are not always combined. Both qualities are necessary for the man who is to wage active battle against the powers that prey. He must be clean of life, so that he can laugh when his public or his private record is searched; and yet being clean of life will not avail him if he is either foolish or timid. He must walk warily and fearlessly, and while he should never brawl if he can avoid it, he must be ready to hit hard if the need arises. Let him remember, by the way, that the unforgivable crime is soft hitting. Do not hit at all if it can be avoided; but never hit softly.”

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From Part III (“Practical Politics”) of Theodore Roosevelt’s Autobiography.

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Assume that Fortune Carries You

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“There is also a saying from Epicurus: ‘If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you will never be rich.’

Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless. Suppose that the property of many millionaires is heaped up in your possession. Assume that fortune carries you far beyond the limits of a private income, decks you with gold, clothes you in purple, and brings you to such a degree of luxury and wealth that you can bury the earth under your marble floors; that you may not only possess, but tread upon, riches. Add statues, paintings, and whatever any artist has devised for the luxury; you will only learn from such things to crave still greater.

Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits. When you are traveling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. If you find, after having travelled far, that there is a more distant goal always in view, you may be sure that this condition is contrary to nature.”

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A section from the 16th of Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius. Buy the book, but you can also read the letters on WikiCommons.

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Photo credit: The Book of Life

The Modern World’s Foundation

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“[I]n the West, Christianity not only fulfilled the initial cognitive conditions for modern structures of consciousness… Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than a mere precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”

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Pulled from the tail of Jürgen Habermas’s book-length interview Time of Transitions. There’s been some controversy about this quote, but the above is the real thing. The word he uses in German is erbe — heritage or legacy.

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Diplomacy, Ben Franklin Style

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“In France, seventy-year-old Franklin began the third phase of his extraordinary life. His fame as a scientist and philosopher blended with the huge excitement he generated as the spokesman for the embattled new republic, the United States of America. With consummate shrewdness, Franklin wore the simple clothes of an American Quaker, an imaginary character created by savants such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The French wanted to believe that in the new world a new kind of man was emerging, free of the corruptions and infirmities of their decadent old world. Franklin was more than ready to encourage this illusion. One excited Parisian wrote: ‘€œEverything about him announces the simplicity of primitive morals€… The people clustered about him as he passed and asked: “Who is this old peasant who has such a noble air?”‘

The old peasant, whose primitive morals had enabled him to maintain wives on both sides of the Atlantic without a hint of scandal, was soon displaying his gift for backstairs diplomacy. He began by charming France’€™s foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes. With the help of several American victories on the battlefield, Franklin persuaded this cautious veteran of twenty-four years™ service in Europe’€™s capitals to back the United States, first with secret aid and then with a formal alliance in 1778. This was only the beginning of Franklin’€™s French accomplishments. He secured over $40 million in loans and gifts from the French treasury — €”the equivalent of perhaps $600 million today — €”money that kept the bankrupt American government functioning. He supervised the shipment of tons of supplies and weapons to America. He armed and equipped American sea captains, such as John Paul Jones, who preyed on British shipping in their home waters with spectacular success…

In a cheerful letter to a grandniece in America, Franklin had [an] explanation for his dalliances: ‘Somebody gave it out that I loved ladies; and then every body presented me their ladies (or the ladies presented themselves) to be embraced, that is to have their necks kissed. For as to kissing on the lips or cheeks it is not the mode here, the first is reckoned rude, and the other may rub off the paint. The French ladies have however 1000 other ways of rendering themselves agreeable; by their various attentions and civilities, & their sensible conversation. ‘Tis a delightful people to live with.’…

Occasionally, one madam or mademoiselle asked him if he cared for her more than the other pursuers. With a smile Franklin would reply in his limping French, ‘€˜Yes, when you are closest to me, because of the power of the attraction.’

The remark combined flirtation and a reminder of his fame as a scientist. He was comparing the lady’€™s impact on him to the way an electrified piece of metal drew iron filings to it. Behind these amorous games lay the goal Franklin never forgot — €”persuading the French to back the faltering American Revolution. He knew — €”and cheerfully approved — the passion for politics among upper-class French women. He hoped their enthusiasm for his amiable American ways would be transmitted to their influential husbands or lovers.”

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Pulled from Thomas Fleming’s The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers.

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Rioting in Understatement

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“The two parties, which are really one party, cannot be put to use. They are the country’s ownership made carnival. Can the united action of individual citizens regain some control over government? I think so. But it won’t be easy, to riot in understatement. Attempts to cut back the war budget — whether the war be against communism or drugs or us — will be fought with great resourcefulness. When challenged with the billions of dollars wasted or stolen from the Pentagon, the establishment politician’s answer is clear: Abortion is against God’s law. He promptly changes the subject, the way a magician does when he catches your attention with one hand while the other picks your pocket…

Our political debate — what little there is — can never speak of the future except in terms of the past. I shall, therefore, present a formula to restore the Republic by moving boldly forward into the past. I wish to invoke the spirit of Henry Clay. Thanks to our educational system, no one knows who he is, but for political purposes he can be first explained, then trotted out as a true America Firster who felt that it was the task of government to make internal improvements, to spend money on education and on the enlargement of the nation’s economic plant… This does not seem to me to be too ambitious a program.”

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Pulled from Gore Vidal’s classic “Notes on Our Patriarchal State,” which is taken from his “State of the Union” speech from 1990 (embedded below). To get the full effect, flash forward to minute twenty-six and listen to this section. The text can be found in his collection Gore Vidal’s State of the Union.

Why Identity Politics Fails

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“The paradox of identity liberalism is that it paralyzes the capacity to think and act in a way that would actually accomplish the things it professes to want. It is mesmerized by symbols: achieving superficial diversity in organizations, retelling history to focus on marginal and often minuscule groups, concocting inoffensive euphemisms to describe social reality, protecting young ears and eyes already accustomed to slasher films from any disturbing encounter with alternative viewpoints. Identity liberalism has ceased being a political project and has morphed into an evangelical one. The difference is this: evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend the truth…

If liberals hope ever to recapture America’s imagination and become a dominant force across the country, it will not be enough to beat the Republicans at flattering the vanity of the mythical Joe Sixpack. They must offer a vision of our common destiny based on one thing that all Americans, of every background, actually share. And that is citizenship. We must relearn how to speak to citizens as citizens and to frame our appeals — including ones to benefit particular groups — in terms of principles that everyone can affirm. Ours must become a civic liberalism. […]

Elections are not prayer meetings, and no one is interested in your personal testimony. They are not therapy sessions or occasions to obtain recognition. They are not seminars or ‘teaching moments.’ They are not about exposing degenerates and running them out of town. If you want to save America’s soul, consider becoming a minister. If you want to force people to confess their sins and convert, don a white robe and head to the River Jordan. If you are determined to bring the Last Judgment down on the United States of America, become a god. But if you want to win the country back from the right, and bring about lasting change for the people you care about, it’s time to descend from the pulpit.”

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Pulled from Mark Lilla’s short book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, published last month.

In both its tone and substance, I think it’s as useful a Democratic roadmap as I’ve seen since last summer. (For ongoing discussion of the book, including some of its shortcomings, follow my friend Matthew Sitman.)

I’m descended from James

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“Like a lot of boys I played war when I was young, and like a lot of men I retained an intense and abiding curiosity about it. And like a lot of people, my family was deeply affected by war and probably wouldn’t have existed without it. One of my mother’s ancestors emigrated from Germany in order to fight in the American Revolution and was given a land grant in Ohio in return. His last name was Grimm; he was related to the great folklorists who recorded German fairy tales. One of Grimm’s descendants married into another frontier family, the Carrolls, who were almost wiped out by Indians during a raid on their remote Pennsylvania homestead in 1781. The Carroll wife managed to hide in a cornfield with her four-year-old son, James, while the Indians killed her two teenage sons and her dog. The husband was off in town that day. I’m descended from James.

My father was half Jewish and grew up in Europe. He was thirteen when his family fled the Spanish Civil War and settled in Paris, and seventeen when they left Paris ahead of the German army and emigrated to the United States. He tried to sign up for military service but was turned down due to asthma, so he eventually helped the war effort by working on jet engines in Paterson, New Jersey. Later he got a degree in fluid mechanics and worked on submarine design. When I turned eighteen I received my selective service card in the mail, in case the United States needed to draft me, and I declared that I wasn’t going to sign it. The Vietnam War had just ended and every adult I knew had been against it. I had no problem, personally, with fighting a war; I just didn’t trust my government to send me to one that was completely necessary.

My father’s reaction surprised me. Vietnam had made him vehemently antiwar, so I expected him to applaud my decision, but instead he told me that American soldiers had saved the world from fascism during World War II and that thousands of young Americans were buried in his homeland of France. ‘You don’t owe your country nothing,’ I remember him telling me. ‘You owe it something, and depending on what happens, you might owe it your life.’

The way my father put it completely turned the issue around for me: suddenly the draft card wasn’t so much an obligation as a chance to be part of something bigger than myself. And he’d made it clear that if the United States embarked on a war that I felt was wrong, I could always refuse to go; in his opinion, protesting an immoral war was just as honorable as fighting a moral one. Either way, he made it clear that my country needed help protecting the principles and ideals that I’d benefited from my entire life.”

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Pulled from Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. I’m descended from James.

That sentence, its ordering in the paragraph and use of the informal contraction where a self-serious “I am” would be tempting, is a reason Junger is a great writer.

Image: AARP

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The Bookends to Cary Grant’s Surprising Memoir

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“I was born in the provincial city of Bristol, England, but have avidly frequented the brightest capitals of the world ever since, and now keep a permanent residence in the so-called, through misnamed, glamour capital of Hollywood.

I had no sisters, was separated from my mother when I was nine years old, was stammeringly shy in the presence of girls; yet have married three times and found myself making love on the screen — in public, mind you, in front of millions of people— to such fascinating women as Ingrid Bergman, Doris Day, Mae West, Irene Dunne, Deborah Kerr, Eva Marie Saint, Sophia Loren, Marlene Dietrich and Grace Kelly.

I was an only child… My father made no more than a modest living and we had little money. Yet today I am considered, except among the wealthy, to be wealthy. I received only a sketchy education by most scholastic standards, lacked confidence and the courage to enjoy life, but on the screen seem to have successfully epitomized an informed, capable and happy man. A series of contradictions too evident to be coincidental. Perhaps the original circumstances caused, created and provoked all the others. Perhaps they can all be reconciled into one complete life, my own, as I recall each step that led to each next step and look back on the path of my life from this older and, I trust, more mature viewpoint…

Regardless of a professed rationalization that I became an actor in order to travel, I probably chose my profession because I was seeking approval, adulation, admiration and affection: each a degree of love. Perhaps no child ever feels the recipient of enough love to satisfy him or her. Oh, how we secretly yearn for it, yet openly defend against it.

I have made over 60 pictures and lived in Hollywood for more than 30 years. Thirty years spent in the stimulating company of hard-working, excitable, dedicated, loving, serious, honest, good people. Casts and crews. I recognize and respect them. I know their faults and their insecurities. I hope they know and forgive mine. Thirty years ago my hair was black and wavy. Today it’s gray and bristly. But today people in cars, stopped alongside me at a traffic light, smile at me!

I feel fine. Alone. But fine. My mother is quite elderly. My wives have divorced me, and I await a woman with the best qualities of each. I will endow her with those qualities because they will be in my own point of view.

As a philosopher once said, ‘You cannot judge the day until the night.’ Since it is for me evening, or at least teatime, I can now look back and assess the day. It’s been a glorious adventure up to here — even the saddest parts — and I look forward to seeing the rest of the film. Just as I did in 1932 when I sat in that Paramount Studio office. I took up the pen and wrote for the first time ‘Cary Grant.’ And that’s who, it seems, I am. Well, as some profound fellow said, ‘I’d be a nut to go through all that again, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.'”

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Selections from Cary Grant’s short self-published autobiography, Archie Leach. He did find that woman, by the way.

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Barbarian Days

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“Things changed after that between me and Mark… I followed him around at work, sitting in while he examined patients. He had been a bit of a prodigy when we were in college. After his father developed a tumor, Mark, who was pre-med, started studying cancer with an intensity that convinced many of his friends that his goal was to find a cure in time to save his father. As it turned out, his father didn’t have cancer. But Mark kept on with his cancer studies. His interest was not in fact in oncology — in finding a cure — but in cancer education and prevention. By the time he entered medical school, he had created, with another student, a series of college courses on cancer and coauthored The Biology of Cancer Sourcebook, the text for a course that was eventually offered to tens of thousands of students. He cowrote a second book, Understanding Cancer, that became a bestselling university text, and he continued to lecture throughout the United States on cancer research, education, and prevention. ‘The funny thing is, I’m not really interested in cancer,’ Mark told me. ‘I’m interested in people’s response to it. A lot of cancer patients and survivors report that they never really lived till they got cancer, that it forced them to face things, to experience life more intensely. What you see in family practice is that families just can’t afford to be superficial with each other anymore once someone has cancer. Corny as it sounds, what I’m really interested in is the human spirit — in how people react to stress and adversity. I’m fascinated by the way people fight back, by how they keep fighting their way to the surface.’ Mark clawed at the air with his arms. What he was miming was the struggle to reach the surface through the turbulence of a large wave.”

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From the eighth chapter (“Against Dereliction”) of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life.

The chapter opens with Conrad, writing in The Mirror of the Sea: “The ocean has the conscienceless temper of a savage autocrat spoiled by too much adulation.”

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What’s a Midlife Crisis?

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“I used to think, before I had one, that the midlife crisis was something that happened to weak-minded chumps who didn’t have backbone. Now I believe that midlife crises are structural: they’re to do with your whole life. They’re to do with facing things that haven’t been faced before. And what gets them going is a hysterical overreaction to the certainty that you’re going to die.

One of the definitions of youth is that you think death and decay are things that happen to other people; some part of you thinks, funnily enough, in my case it’s not going to happen. Though you’re intellectually persuaded that it will, a bit of you goes on believing it’s just a rumor as far as you’re concerned.

Milan Kundera said that ‘we’re children throughout our lives because every 10 years we have to learn a new set of rules.’ I think that’s a good remark, and I think it’s spectacularly true of the mid-life. When I was 40, I thought I knew everything. I was even almost bored by the transparency of everything and how clear life was to me. Then suddenly, I was pitched up on the shore of the mid-life, and I thought, ‘I don’t know anything anymore! I’ve got to learn all this stuff anew.’ And that’s a frightening thought, but it’s an exciting thought, too. And you do pick up these sort of hints and pointers about how you can live the next period of your life.”

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Martin Amis, speaking in a 1995 interview with Charlie Rose.

Later in the conversation, Charlie remarks, “You’ve said you’re happy about all this but also, in some ways, saddened.” Amis’s reply: “Well, I’m sad about the sunderings that proved necessary, or at any rate have happened in my life. Friends. Family. Wife. It all feels unknown out there now.”

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