On New Year’s Day Mary Hoffman blogged about the two-faced Janus, a god who looks both forwards and backwards and, at this resolution-making dawn of 2012, I suppose that this post does the same, provoked in part by mild guilt about avoiding invitations to join Facebook and in part by a 17th century Jesuit’s advice on how to conduct one’s life.
A French friend of mine has just got to the age of sixty without ever having owned a television; another dear friend still refuses to have a dishwasher (the horror, the horror) so I guess, in comparison, a pocket of Facebook resistance isn’t so extreme. Can it really be true that there are over 30 million users in the U.K. alone? But when, as I witnessed last week in London, an elderly lady steps onto a train and calls out to the equally elderly friend seeing her off: Facebook me! it’s pretty clear which way the tide is turning. So I have a suspicion that I am in danger of being left high and dry. While I like the way it works as a verb, I don’t, in fact, facebook. I did dip my toe in the water for a week or two a couple of years ago and took it out again pretty quickly. This is not a King Canutish thing. It is simply that my procrastination quota is already well provided for with other daily habits. I have a novel to finish and it’s taking me far too long already. The History Girls blogspot is perhaps not the most appropriate forum to discuss the pros and cons of Facebook but feel free to comment and tell me that I’m wrong, that the extra time spent in front of my computer screen is worth it, and that it will enrich my life more than I know.
The link between Facebook and the 17th-century Jesuit I mentioned earlier is a 21st-century novel that the reading group to which I have belonged for the last twelve years has just elected to read. Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer prize-winning Middlesex has been perched on the upper reaches of my reading mountain for an inexcusably long time. It is still there (I have good intentions) but we are all now reading his third novel, The Marriage Plot. Just for the record, I am half-way through and am both hooked on its premise and enamoured of Eugenides’s prose. It starts with a killer quote: People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about. This intriguing assertion is one of Francois de la Rochefoucauld’s Maximes, penned during the reign of Louis XIV. Eugenides’s novel elegantly extemporises on this theme, juxtaposing the notion of love as a social construct with the visceral and agonising reality of love as experienced by his heroine.
Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)
However, it is on account of de la Rochefoucauld’s Maximes that I mention The Marriage Plot in today’s post. At this time of year, when we are apt to cast an eye over the balance sheet of our lives, La Rochefoucauld’s brilliant, trenchant and often caustic insights into human nature seem particularly appropriate. His maxims are mostly condensed into one or two lines, concentrated like a good stock, and are as relevant today as ever they were. That our actions are mostly driven by self-interest has certainly not changed in the last three and a half centuries. Here are a couple of my personal favourites:
Nos vertus ne sont, le plus souvent, que des vices déguisés.
(Our virtues are mostly only our vices in disguise.)
Nous avons tous assez de force pour supporter les maux d'autrui.
We all have enough strength to endure the misfortunes of others.
Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658)
The court of the Sun King at Versailles, this goldfish bowl society, where wit was more often than not the weapon of choice, lapped up de la Rochefoucauld’s fiercely perceptive observations. While researching this period for my current novel I wanted to find someone whose teachings, or whose world view, my protagonist could look to when reflecting on how to survive at court. I was very tempted by the Maximes but, in the end, was drawn to a precursor of de la Rochefoucauld, a Spanish Jesuit, Baltasar Gracián. Gracián’s writings were translated and widely read in France in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Marquise de Sablé, for instance, whose salon de la Rochefoucauld attended, had certainly read his aphorisms in the original Spanish. In comparison to de la Rochefoucauld, Baltasar Gracián arguably aimed less to dazzle than to advise his reader how to survive the vicissitudes of life. Gracián himself had a troubled career. He repeatedly disobeyed his superiors – publishing without their permission – and was ultimately sent into exile by the Jesuits where he was forbidden to write and where, presumably, he followed his own good advice.
I am grateful to the historian Anthony Grafton who, during the course of a recent interview, introduced me to Gracián’s work. He told me the story of a German left-wing intellectual and Gracián scholar, Werner Krauss, who was incarcerated by the Nazis during WW2. Apparently Krauss used the teachings of Gracián to help him resist cracking under torture. Don’t reveal what you are thinking. Don’t reveal what you are feeling. Be hard and rigid, like a billiard ball so that you will bounce off other people. Cultivate prudence, good sense, self-mastery, coolness.
Poetic and powerful, the 300 aphorisms that make up The Art of Worldly Wisdom (as translated by Joseph Jacobs) are a revelation. If, like me, you are new to them, take a look at them and see just how relevant and contemporary they feel. Some of the aphorisms certainly constitute a manual for social success. Make people depend on you, he advises. Avoid outshining your superiors; possess the art of conversation; don’t expose your weaknesses; learn how to deflect trouble onto someone else; don’t waste favours. Other aphorisms are profoundly moving. He writes of the art of letting things alone, the importance of recognising unlucky days and how there is no desert like that of living without friends.
How wonderful it is that a 17th-century Jesuit can reach forward to our time and speak to us with such clarity. And how sad that we can’t reciprocate. But wait – perhaps we can! Which brings me back to Facebook. Because actually, having just googled him, it appears that Baltasar Gracián is on Facebook. You can poke him. You can write on his wall. It’s almost worth breaking a New Year’s resolution and capitulating under the sheer weight of Mark Zuckerberg’s social networking site. For as Gracián himself advises: “Have friends. A friend is a second self. Every friend is good and wise for his friend; between them everything turns to good.”
A Very Happy New Year to One and All.