A reflection from Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March on how life – and death – has changed since 1914:
In the years before the Great War, at the time the events chronicled in these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a man lived or died. When someone was expunged from the lists of the living, someone else did not immediately step up to take his place, but a gap was left to show where he had been, and those who knew the man who had died or disappeared, well or even less well, fell silent whenever they saw the gap. When a fire happened to consume a particular dwelling in a row of dwellings, the site of the conflagration remained for a long time afterwards. For masons and bricklayers worked slowly and thoughtfully, and when they walked past the ruins, neighbours and passers-by alike recalled the form and the walls of the house that had once stood there. That’s how it was then! Everything that grew took long to grow; and everything that ended took a long time to be forgotten. Everything that existed left behind traces of itself, and people then lived by their memories, just as we nowadays live by our capacity to forget, quickly and comprehensively.
Good advice from C.K. Stead on having an appetite for life:
Self-absorption is slow death by interior corrosion, and what protects us against it is curiosity, an appetite for the world in all its forms. If you enjoy the world enough to look hard at it, it will save you – but only from yourself, not from disease, war, man-eating tigers or other people, all of which are part of what you must love (or at least love to look out at) in order to live well.
This made me laugh, from Meg Wolitzer’s novel The Wife:
All of them, the novelists, the story writers, the poets, desperately long to win. If there is a prize, then there is someone somewhere on earth who desires it. Grown men pace their homes and scheme about ways to win things, and small children hyperventilate over the prospect of gold-plated trophies for penmanship, for swimming, for just being cheerful. Maybe other life-forms give out awards too, and we just don’t know it: Best All-Round Flatworm; Most Helpful Crow.
We could perhaps do with a Thomas Cromwell in UK politics today. This is from Tracy Borman’s biography:
Cromwell’s love of all things Italian was highly unusual for a Londoner. Andreas Franciscius had been aghast to discover on his visit to the capital that its inhabitants ‘not only despise the way in which Italians live, but actually curse them with uncontrolled hatred’. This was corroborated by another Italian visitor of the period: ‘The English are great lovers of themselves, and of everything belonging to them; they think that there are no other men than themselves, and no other world than England; and whenever they see a handsome foreigner they say that “he looks like an Englishman” … They have a great antipathy to foreigners, and imagine that they never come into their island, but to make themselves master of it, and to usurp their goods.’
From Aquinas and the heretics:
Apart from the guardianship of the Church over many centuries, it is hard to see whence would have derived the resources that later gave rise to modern science, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. The fundamental conceptions of progress, truth, compassion, the dignity of the individual, and the centrality of personal liberty on which modern progress rests are rooted in Jewish and Christian beliefs about human nature and destiny.
The Mistress of Novices in Kathryn Hulme’s The Nun’s Story capturing some of the difficulties of life in community:
‘Once, long ago, I too found the community life a pure agony. I suffered, knowing that my forced participation could never be pleasing to God. I struggled to overcome this. I thought about the Christ who took to Himself the very humblest of companions. I told myself that quite possibly He could not abide the smell of fish or the frequently childish talk of those simple disciples. Yet… He lived with them and spoke with them in the picturesque parables they could understand, He who had confounded the scholars of the temple when only twelve years old.’