Monday 2 January 2012

Writing on Baltasar Gracián’s Wall

Linda Buckley-Archer

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.


Caroline Lawrence said...

What a fascinating post, Linda! I have duly made Baltasar my "friend" on Facebook. It occurred to me that if the real Baltasar - the 17th century Jesuit - had been on Facebook and Twitter he might not have said, as he does in his tenth maxim: "Fame is earned. The desire for fame springs from man's best part." EEk!

michelle lovric said...

Wonderful post. I kept wondering how you were going to bring it back to Facebook, and you did it with a beautiful flourish.

I remain a Facebook Refusnik, for the same very good reasons that you do - in order to have more time to keep my face down in a real book.

H.M. Castor said...

What a fantastic post. Very thought-provoking to consider the contrast in cultures of personal behaviour that you highlight - Facebook encourages everyone to say 'What's on your mind?' every day (or every hour!), whereas the advice for surviving in the court is all about concealment of one's true feelings. Modern cultures vary on this of course ( as do individuals) but as a general trend - and, would I be right in saying a very recent one, of the last 50 years, say? - it marks a vast change, doesn't it.

Martha said...

I refuse to have anything to do with Facebook - for the reasons you give and because I consider it an abomination.

The facebook 'friends' are not friends in the sense that Gracián meant - this Wall is just a shallow way of wasting time, and keeping score. I don't believe you are missing anything by avoiding FB. The friends you make through your blog and in your work will have substance and weight and real value.

Catherine Johnson said...

Lovely post. I am on FB and for someone with a huge family that bestrides the world it is terribly useful. Births and deaths can be announced, travel arrangements made. I am more in touch with my family now than I ever was and I love it. You can say hello without the formality of a one off letter, you can stay in touch at a distance which for me is great. Of course it wastes time. So does knitting and swimming and sitting in a caf drinking coffee. And btw I don't have a dishwasher :(.
Happy New Year and thanks again for a lovely read Linda xc

adele said...

I too do not facebook and for the reasons you give. Don't fancy it at all and HATED having to go in and say: yes, I'll be friends with you. I always ended up saying: email me instead, so deleted myself from the site within weeks of going on there about three years ago now. And lovely to see La R. mentioned. I think he's a very clever chap, as is B Gracian. Hope latter gets loads of friends on FB.

Gill James said...

Love Twitter, hate Facebook but do it anyway. My main objection to FB isn't about what it does or doesn't do - it's actually mainly a good idea. But it is so counter-intutitive and they keep changing it. Not easy to read either.
Blogger is great, Word Press is okay, PayPal, Mailchimp all work so much better.
Don't buy the "Internet takes up too much time" argument at all. Internet actually speeds many things up - and it is our servant, not our master. Only one's own lack of disciplne makes it a problem.

Eleanor said...

Wonderful stuff, Linda. Great words of wisdom to be cut out and pasted everywhere.
I too am anti Facebook, though I have never tried it, even though I'm told there is a page in my name (nothing to do with me). I might be the only person in the world who has never seen a tweet, either.
My reason for staying off both is mainly that I know my addictive personality would come to the fore, and I would never get any work done if I started clicking.
I dress this up in reasons of principle, of course. I hate the way acquaintances and businesses seem to bully you into signing up, and I worry about my children's generation spraying their personal details across the world.
I loved the definition that someone came up with on the radio the other day, when listeners were asked to sum up famous books in one sentence:
"1984: Facebook run by Stalin."
By the way, 'Middlesex' is terrific. Give it a go.

Linda B-A said...

Such fascinating and perceptive comments, thank you. Like Eleanor, Michelle and Adele I dare not get hooked on FB. Having the internet on your computer is like having a cake in the cupboard which you are perpetually having to resist. I tend not to despise it as much as Martha seems to but I do agree (with both Martha and Adele) that being asked to be someone's 'friend' in that way does pall. Cordelia (as in King L) would have been in big trouble. Good to hear Catherine and Creative's p.o.v. - I actually think the internet is miraculous and tried hard in my last book to figure out how a scholar from the 18th century would react to it. Harriet makes a very interesting point about the contrast between attitudes now and perhaps 50 years ago. I suspect, though, that much of what is said on FB conceals as much as it reveals. I love the 1984 precis and will certainly give Middlesex a go.

Mary Hoffman said...

I am constantly amazed by how much heat Social Networking generates among people who don't use it!

No-one is under any obligation to join Facebook, Twitter or any other site and I think it's a very bad idea for publishers to pressure writers to do that, or to blog.

If you take to it, as I do, then do it and enjoy it, since it has many positive aspects. But if you don't, just leave it alone. It's not for you.

There is no moral content in either stance.

Leslie Wilson said...

I enjoyed this post - I am on fb, but neglect it most of the time. Must find out more about Gracian - but not via Facebook! Thanks, Linda!

KNorman said...

Personally I dislike Facebook as a company - they are misogynistic and frequently close down pages that of breastfeeding women and supporters because they can't deal with breasts being for feeding babies. But I do find it a great resource for finding people and organisations that I'm interested in and pages such as the Analytical Armadillo do a great job in helping women breastfeed. For me it is cross between a newspaper, email and a group discussion. I also have friends that I keep in touch via it.