Quotable Words: Alice James on Memories and Wit

From Alice James’ (1848-1892) Diary, written in 1890, when she was an invalid in England. Recalling a childhood visit to Italy….

Alice JamesIt is very curious how, for the last year or two, I perpetually come across in my reading just what I have been thinking about, curious I mean, of course, because my reading is so haphazard. It reminds me of [William] in the old days when his eyes were bad and I used to begin and tell him something which I thought of interest from whatever book I might be reading, when he would invariably say, “I glanced into the book yesterday and read that.” I wonder what determines the selection of memory, why does one childish experience or impression stand out so luminous and solid against the, for the most part, vague and misty background? The things we remember have a firsttimeness about them which suggests that they may be the reason of their survival. I must ask Wm. Some day if there is any theory on the subject, or better, whether ’tis worth a theory.

I remember so distinctly the first time I was conscious of a purely intellectual process. ’Twas the summer of [18]56 which we spent in Boulogne and the parents of Mlle. Marie Boningue our governess had a campagne on the outskirts and invited us to spend the day, Perhaps Marie’s fête-day. A large and shabby calèche came for us into which we were backed, save Wm.; all I can remember of the drive was a never-ending ribbon of dust stretching in front and the anguish greater even than usual of Wilky’s and Bob’s heels grinding into my shins. Marie told us that her farther had a scar upon his face caused by a bad scald in his youth and we must be sure and not look at him as he was very sensitive. How I remember the painful conflict between sympathy and the desire to look and the fear that my baseness should be discovered by the good man as he sat at the head of the table in charge of a big frosted-cake sprinkled o’er with those pink and white worms in which lurk the caraway seed. How easy ’t would be to picture one’s youth as a perpetual escape from that abhorred object!—I wonder if it is a blight upon children still?—But to arrive at the first flowering of me Intellect! We were turned into the garden to play, a sandy or rather dusty expanse with nothing in it, as I remember, but two or three scrubby apple-trees, from one of which hung a swing. As time went on Wilky and Bob disappeared, not to my grief, and the Boningues. Harry was sitting in the swing and I came up and stood near by as the sun began to slant over the desolate expanse, as the dreary h[ou]rs, with that endlessness which they have for infancy, passed, when Harry suddenly exclaimed: “This might certainly be called pleasure under difficulties!” The stir of my whole being in response to the substance and exquisite, original form of this remark almost makes my heart beat now with the sisterly pride which was then awakened and it came to me in a flash, the higher nature of this appeal to the mind, as compared to the rudimentary solicitations which usually produced my childish explosion of laughter; and I can also feel distinctly the sense of self-satisfaction in that I could not only perceive, but appreciate this subtlety, as if I had acquired a new sense, a sense whereby to measure intellectual things, wit as distinguished from giggling, for example.

Her philosopher brother William was born in 1842. “Harry,”her brother, novelist Henry James, in 1843. He was devoted and attentive to her, if a somewhat scandalized admirer of her diary.

Commonplace Book: Elizabeth Taylor

So many gorgeous bits from “A Game of Hide and Seek” to savor. Here’s one:

“Another day is another world. The difference between foreign countries is never so great as the difference between night and day. Not only are the landscape and the light changed, but people are different, relationships which the night before had progressed at a sudden pace, appear to be back where they were. Some hopes are renewed, but others dwindle: the state of the world looks rosier and death further off; but the the state of ourselves and our loves and ambitions seems more prosaic. We begin to regret promises, as if the influence of darkness were like the influence of drink. We do not love our friends so warmly: or ourselves. Children feel less in need of their parents: writers tear up the masterpieces they wrote the night before.”


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From the Boston Public Library’s Flickr account.

Commonplace Book: Some Philosophical Giggles

Tipped by Leiter Reports, some nice bits from a Kindle Commonplace book on philosophy:


   “Mind is classified by the US Post Office as Second Class Matter”–From the front cover of Mind

   “Philosophy is to the real world as masturbation is to sex.” –Marx

   “I like to do all the talking. It saves times and prevents arguments.” –Oscar Wilde

   Heidegger has been mistranslated. His major work is really “Being on Time.”

Commonplace Book: Churchill or Not, etc.

Catching up on book reviews, and found some fun tidbits. First From a TLS column on a new book called Churchill in His Own Words: the disclosure that some of his best bits might be false attributions.

To wit, his famous riposte to the loony “never end a sentence with preposition” canard:

“This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put.”

And even better, considered criticism of his fellow British politicians:

Clement Atlee, “A sheep in sheep’s clothing” or, of Arthur Balfour, “If you wanted nothing done, Balfour was the man for the task.”

This one is too good to be false, an exchange with Nancy Astor during dinner at Blenheim.

Nancy Astor:(appalled by something Churchill had said): “Sir, if I were married to you, I’d put poison in your coffee.”

Winston Churchill: “Madam, if I were married to you, I’d drink it.”

In the same issue, a reference to the Frost essay on poetry with these lines that keep circling back in my life as some of the only consistently reliable advice on writing I’ve encountered:

“No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

and on poetry:

“It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy should be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life-not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.”

Finally, from a review of a book called “Swimming Studies,” a reflective memoir by a serious competitive swimmer who did not realize her Olympic dreams (didn’t even make the team). The writer, Leanne Shapton, makes a distinction of “swimming” with “bathing.”

“And yet all this control and self-denial are what (in this book at least) define swimming, as opposed to bathing. “Swimming” is what people who want to be the fastest, the best, do. It involves never letting your feet touch the bottom, never resting, both literally and metaphorically. “Bathing,” on the other hand, “implies having some contact with the ground while in the water–propulsion and speed are secondary.” Bathing is what the rest of us do. Shapton’s husband, a poor swimmer who seems from Shapton’s account to be a grounded person in both senses of the word, is a bather. “Watching him in the waves, I realize he doesn’t see life as rigor and deprivation. To him it’s something to enjoy, where the focus is not on how to win, but how to flourish.” Full review by Elizabeth Lowry.