Category Archives: Essay

Camus on Freedom

Albert CamusThe following is an excerpt from Bread and Freedom, a speech given by Albert Camus at the Labor Exchange of Saint-Etienne on 10 May 1953. It was published in the 1960 collection of essays titled Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.




It is true that freedom, when it is made up principally of privileges, insults labor and separates it from culture. But freedom is not made up principally of privileges; it is made up especially of duties. And the moment each of us tries to give freedom’s duties precedence over its privileges, freedom joins together labor and culture and sets in motion the only force that can effectively serve justice. The rule of our action, the secret of our resistance can be easily stated: everything that humiliates labor also humiliates the intelligence, and vice versa. And the revolutionary struggle, the centuries-old straining toward liberation can be defined first of all as a double and constant rejection of humiliation.

To tell the truth, we have not yet cast off that humiliation. But the wheel turns, history changes, and a time is coming, I am sure, when we shall cease to be alone. For me, our gathering here today is in itself a sign. The fact that members of unions gather together and crowd around our freedoms to defend them is indeed reason enough for all to come here from all directions to illustrate their union and their hope. The way ahead of us is long. Yet if war does not come and mingle everything in its hideous confusion, we shall have time at last to give a form to the justice and freedom we need. But to achieve that we must henceforth categorically refuse, without anger but irrevocably, the lies with which we have been stuffed. No, freedom is not founded on concentration camps, or on the subjugated peoples of the colonies, or on the workers’ poverty! No, the doves of peace do not perch on gallows! No, the forces of freedom cannot mingle the sons of the victims with the executioners of Madrid and elsewhere! Of that, at least, we shall henceforth be sure, as we shall be sure that freedom is not a gift received from a State or a leader but a possession to be won every day by the effort of each and the union of all.

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, oil on canvas, 349 cm × 776 cm (137.4 in × 305.5 in), 1937, Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain

Pablo Picasso, Guernica, oil on canvas, 349 cm × 776 cm (137.4 in × 305.5 in), 1937, Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain



Galileo’s Dialogue

Frontispiece of Galileo Galilei's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,1632

Frontispiece of Galileo Galilei’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,1632.

Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was first published in 1632, and the following year he was suspected of heresy by the Inquisition and sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. He was ordered to recite Psalms each week for three years and, of course, to forget the notion that the sun was the center of the solar system. His book was placed on a forbidden list until 1835, and it took 300 years for the Roman Catholic Church to admit he was correct and clear his name.

Human progress and the expansion of knowledge still face such obstacles around the world from religious dogma, political and economic interests, and willful ignorance. Recently, however, the scientific community and the interested world at large were rewarded when proof finally came that gravitational waves, predicted a hundred years ago by Albert Einstein in his general theory of relativity, actually exist. So, with this new knowledge, Galileo, considered by Einstein to be the father of modern physics and science in general, is once more vindicated.

The following section of Galileo’s Dialogue is taken from The World’s Greatest Books, Vol. XV, Science edited by Arthur Mee and J.A. Hammerton, published 1910. The dialogue is between three men, with Salviatus acting as the voice of Galileo himself who explains the solar system to his two colleagues.

Does the Earth Move

Salviatus: Now, let Simplicius propound those doubts which dissuade him from believing that the earth may move, as the other planets, round a fixed centre.

Simplicius: The first and greatest difficulty is that it is impossible both to be in a centre and to be far from it. If the earth move in a circle it cannot remain in the centre of the zodiac; but Aristotle, Ptolemy and others have proved that it is in the centre of the zodiac.

Salviatus: There is no question that the earth cannot be in the centre of a circle round whose circumference it moves. But tell me what centre do you mean?

Simplicius: I mean the centre of the universe, of the whole world, of the starry sphere.

Salviatus: No one has ever proved that the universe is finite and figurative; but granting that it is finite and spherical, and has therefore a centre, we have still to give reasons why we should believe that the earth is at its centre.

Simplicius: Aristotle has proved in a hundred ways that the universe is finite and spherical.

Salviatus: Aristotle’s proof that the universe was finite and spherical was derived essentially from the consideration that it moved; and seeing that centre and figure were inferred by Aristotle from its mobility, it will be reasonable if we endeavour to find from the circular motions of mundane bodies the centre’s proper place. Aristotle himself came to the conclusion that all the celestial spheres revolve round the earth, which is placed at the centre of the universe. But tell me, Simplicius, supposing Aristotle found that one of the two propositions must be false, and that either the celestial spheres do not revolve or that the earth is not the centre round which they revolve, which proposition would he prefer to give up?

Simplicius: I believe that the Peripatetics——

Salviatus: I do not ask the Peripatetics, I ask Aristotle. As for the Peripatetics, they, as humble vassals of Aristotle, would deny all the experiments and all the observations in the world; nay, would also refuse to see them, and would say that the universe is as Aristotle writeth, and not as Nature will have it; for, deprived of the shield of his authority, with what do you think they would appear in the field? Tell me, therefore, what Aristotle himself would do.

Simplicius: To tell you the truth, I do not know how to decide which is the lesser inconvenience.

Salviatus: Seeing you do not know, let us examine which would be the more rational choice, and let us assume that Aristotle would have chosen so. Granting with Aristotle that the universe has a spherical figure and moveth circularly round a centre, it is reasonable to believe that the starry orbs move round the centre of the universe or round some separate centre?

Simplicius: I would say that it were much more reasonable to believe that they move with the universe round the centre of the universe.

Salviatus: But they move round the sun and not round the earth; therefore the sun and not the earth is the centre of the universe.

Simplicius: Whence, then, do you argue that it is the sun and not the earth that is the centre of the planetary revolutions?

Salviatus: I infer that the earth is not the centre of the planetary revolutions because the planets are at different times at very different distances from the earth. For instance, Venus, when it is farthest off, is six times more remote from us than when it is nearest, and Mars rises almost eight times as high at one time as at another.

Simplicius: And what are the signs that the planets revolve round the sun as centre?

Salviatus: We find that the three superior planets—Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn—are always nearest to the earth when they are in opposition to the sun, and always farthest off when they are in conjunction; and so great is this approximation and recession that Mars, when near, appears very nearly sixty times greater than when remote. Venus and Mercury also certainly revolve round the sun, since they never move far from it, and appear now above and now below it.

Sagredus: I expect that more wonderful things depend on the annual revolution than upon the diurnal rotation of the earth.

Salviatus: YOU do not err therein. The effect of the diurnal rotation of the earth is to make the universe seem to rotate in the opposite direction; but the annual motion complicates the particular motions of all the planets. But to return to my proposition. I affirm that the centre of the celestial convolutions of the five planets—Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Mercury, and likewise of the earth—is the sun.

As for the moon, it goes round the earth, and yet does not cease to go round the sun with the earth. It being true, then, that the five planets do move about the sun as a centre, rest seems with so much more reason to belong to the said sun than to the earth, inasmuch as in a movable sphere it is more reasonable that the centre stand still than any place remote from the centre.

To the earth, therefore, may a yearly revolution be assigned, leaving the sun at rest. And if that be so, it follows that the diurnal motion likewise belongs to the earth; for if the sun stood still and the earth did not rotate, the year would consist of six months of day and six months of night. You may consider, likewise, how, in conformity with this scheme, the precipitate motion of twenty-four hours is taken away from the universe; and how the fixed stars, which are so many suns, are made, like our sun, to enjoy perpetual rest.

Sagredus: The scheme is simple and satisfactory; but, tell me, how is it that Pythagoras and Copernicus, who first brought it forward, could make so few converts?

Salviatus: If you know what frivolous reasons serve to make the vulgar, contumacious and indisposed to hearken, you would not wonder at the paucity of converts. The number of thick skulls is infinite, and we need neither record their follies nor endeavour to interest them in subtle and sublime ideas. No demonstrations can enlighten stupid brains.

My wonder, Sagredus, is different from yours. You wonder that so few are believers in the Pythagorean hypothesis; I wonder that there are any to embrace it. Nor can I sufficiently admire the super-eminence of those men’s wits that have received and held it to be true, and with the sprightliness of their judgments have offered such violence to their senses that they have been able to prefer that which their reason asserted to that which sensible experience manifested. I cannot find any bounds for my admiration how that reason was able, in Aristarchus and Copernicus, to commit such a rape upon their senses, as in despite thereof to make herself mistress of their credulity.

Sagredus: Will there still be strong opposition to the Copernican system?

Salviatus: Undoubtedly; for there are evident and sensible facts to oppose it, requiring a sense more sublime than the common and vulgar senses to assist reason.

Sagredus: Let us, then, join battle with those antagonistic facts.

Salviatus: I am ready. In the first place, Mars himself charges hotly against the truth of the Copernican system. According to the Copernican system, that planet should appear sixty times as large when at its nearest as when at its farthest; but this diversity of magnitude is not to be seen. The same difficulty is seen in the case of Venus. Further, if Venus be dark, and shine only with reflected light, like the moon, it should show lunar phases; but these do not appear.

Further, again, the moon prevents the whole order of the Copernican system by revolving round the earth instead of round the sun. And there are other serious and curious difficulties admitted by Copernicus himself. But even the three great difficulties I have named are not real. As a matter of fact, Mars and Venus do vary in magnitude as required by theory, and Venus does change its shape exactly like the moon.

Sagredus: But how came this to be concealed from Copernicus and revealed to you?

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans (1597–1681), oil on canvas,1636, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans (1597–1681), oil on canvas,1636, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Further reading:
Galileo Galilei: When the World Stood Still by Atle Næss
Einstein: His Life & Universe by Walter Isaacson




Robert FluddA single stringed instrument used to scientifically measure pitched tones, the monochord was also considered by some to be an important alchemical tool. The 16th and 17th century paracelsian physician Robert Fludd (1574–1637) made use of what he called his mundane monochord to express not only his theories of music but also his esoteric ideas about divine cosmic harmonies.

Robert Fludd’s Monochord from 1617, engraving by Kaspar Rötel

Robert Fludd’s Monochord from 1617, engraving by Kaspar Rötel

Robert Fludd’s Monochord from 1624, engraving by Kaspar Rötel

Robert Fludd’s Monochord from 1624, engraving by Kaspar Rötel












An exhibition titled High Matter, Dark Language: The Philosophy of Robert Fludd was organized in 1984 at the Wellcome Library in London. The catalog for the exhibition states:

Fludd used the monochord mostly to depict the musical intervals and numerical
proportions, but he also went further than this and integrated other relationships such as
parts of the human body or the stars into the framework of the musical instrument… It is clear enough that Fludd meant to present in this way an ensemble of harmonies that was shown in its completest form in the Monochordum mundi. But he was never affected by the difference which exists for us between the harmony of an instrument and the symbolism of all the other harmonies.

Titlepage of Robert Fludd's "Utriusque cosmi maioris scilice, engraving by T. de Bry, 1617

Titlepage of Robert Fludd’s “Utriusque cosmi maioris scilice, engraving by T. de Bry, 1617


Ruskin on Landscape

John Ruskin

John Ruskin (8 February 1819 – 20 January 1900) believed that the purpose of landscape painting was to represent the human condition via our surroundings, or as he put it, “The interest of a landscape consists wholly in its relation either to figures present—or to figures past—or to human powers conceived.”


The following are excerpts from lectures on the subject given by Ruskin to his students at Oxford in 1871, taken from the book Lectures on Landscape, Delivered at Oxford in Lent Term, 1871:

 Landscape painting is the thoughtful and passionate representation of the physical conditions appointed for human existence. It imitates the aspects, and records the phenomena, of the visible things which are dangerous or beneficial to men; and displays the human methods of dealing with these, and of enjoying them or suffering from them, which are either exemplary or deserving of sympathetic contemplation.

I have limited, you have just heard, landscape painting to the representation of phenomena relating to human life. You will scarcely be disposed to admit the propriety of such a limitation; and you will still less be likely to conceive its necessary strictness and severity, unless I convince you of it by somewhat detailed examples.

Here are two landscapes by Turner in his greatest time—Vesuvius in repose, Vesuvius in eruption.

One is a beautiful harmony of cool color; and the other of hot, and they are both exquisitely designed in ornamental lines. But they are not painted for those qualities. They are painted because the state of the scene in one case is full of delight to men; and in the other of pain and danger. And it is not Turner’s object at all to exhibit or illustrate natural phenomena, however interesting in themselves.


Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775‑1851), Bay of Naples (Vesuvius Angry), shown in the book as Vesuvius in Eruption, watercolor on paper, 176 x 284 mm, c.1817, Williamson Art Gallery & Museum

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775‑1851), Bay of Naples (Vesuvius Angry), shown in the book as Vesuvius in Eruption, watercolor on paper, 176 x 284 mm, c.1817, Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, *Vesuvius in Repose is in a private collection, and no image is currently available.

He does not want to paint blue mist in order to teach you the nature of evaporation; nor this lava stream, to explain to you the operation of gravity on ponderous and viscous materials. He paints the blue mist, because it brings life and joy to men, and the lava stream because it is death to them.

Only natural phenomena in their direct relation to humanity—these are to be your subjects in landscape. Rocks and water and air may no more be painted for their own sakes, than the armor carved without the warrior.

The physical conditions there are so numerous, and the spiritual ones so occult, that you are sure to be overpowered by the materialism, unless your sentiment is strong. No man is naturally likely to think first of anatomy in painting a pretty woman; but he is very apt to do so in painting a mountain. No man of ordinary sense will take pleasure in features that have no meaning, but he may easily take it in heath, woods or waterfalls, that have no expression. So that it needs much greater strength of heart and intellect to paint landscape than figure: many commonplace persons, bred in good schools, have painted the figure pleasantly or even well; but none but the strongest—John Bellini, Titian, Velasquez, Tintoret, Mantegna, Sandro Botticelli, Carpaccio and Turner—have ever painted a fragment of good landscape.

Brantwood, the home of John Ruskin from 1872 to 1900.

Brantwood, the home of John Ruskin from 1872 to 1900.


John Ruskin, Lectures on Landscape (WorldCat link)



The Art of Iugling or Legerdemaine

Written by Samuel Rid, also known simply as S. R., Sa. Rid, and sometimes attributed to Samuel Rowlands or possibly even Samuel Rand, which happens to be the name of the book’s publisher, The Art of Iugling or Legerdemaine was first published in 1612 and describes the practices of street magicians, grifters, and sleight of hand artists that one might encounter in Renaissance Europe. The following excerpts, written in Early Modern English, introduce the art of legerdemaine and detail the special technique of manipulating balls:

…these fellowes seeing that no profit comes by wandring, but hazard of their liues, doe daily decrease and breake off their wonted society, and betake themselues many of them, some to be Pedlers, some Tinkers, some Iuglers, and some to one kinde of life or other, insomuch that Iugling is now become common, I meane the professors who make an occupation and profession of the same: which I must needs say, that some deserue commendation for the nimblenes and agillity of their hands, and might be thought to performe as excellent things by their Legerdemaine, as any of your wisards, witches, or magitians whatsoeuer. For these kinde of people doe performe that in action, which the other do make shew of: and no doubt many when they heare of any rare exploit performed which cannot enter into their capacity, and is beyond their reach, straight they attribute it to be done by the Deuill, and that they worke by some familiar spirit, when indeede it is nothing els but meere illusion, cosoning, and legerdemaine.

The Conjurer - Bosch

The Conjurer, Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) and workshop or Workshop of Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516) or After Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516), oil on panel, created between 1496 and 1520, Height: 53 cm (20.9 in). Width: 65 cm (25.6 in), Musée Municipal, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France

Feates of Legerdemaine vsed with the
Balls, with one or more.

Concerning the Ball, the playes and deuises thereof are infinite: insomuch, as if you can vse them wel, you may shew an hundred feats, but whether you seeme to throw the Ball into the ayre, or into your mouth, or into your left hand, or as you list, it must be kept still in your right hand: if you practise first with the leaden bullet, you shall the sooner, and better do it with balls of Corke: the first place at your first learning, where you are to bestow a great ball, is in the palme of your hand, with your ring finger, but a small ball is to be placed with your thumbe betwixt your ring finger and middle finger: then are you to practise to do it betwixt your other fingers, then betwixt the forefinger & the thumbe, with the forefinger & middle finger ioyntly, and therein is the greatest and the strangest conueying shewed. Lastly the same small ball is to be practised in the palme of your hand, and so by vse, you shall not only seeme to put any ball from you, and yet retaine it in your hand, but you shall keepe fower or fiue, as clenly and certaine as one, this being first learned and sleight attayned vnto, you shall worke wonderfull feates: as for ensample.

Note for this feate yow must haue fower boxes made in the manner of extinguishers that are made to put out candles, but as big againe: but for want of them, you may take smal candlesticks, or saltseller couers, or som such like.

Lay three or fower balls before you, and as many boxes or small candlesticks &c, then first seeme to put one ball into your left hand, and therewithall seeme to holde the same fast. Then take one of the boxes &c. or any other thing (hauing a hollow foote, and being great) and seeme to put the ball which is thought to be in your left hand vnderneath the same, and so vnder the other candlesticks Boxes &c. seeme to bestow the other balls, and all this while the beholders will suppose each ball to be vnder each box, or candlestick &c. this done vse some charme or forme of words (before set downe) as hey Fortuna furie nunquam credo, passe passe: then take vp the candlestick with one hand and blow, saying thats gone you see: and so likewise looke vnder each candlestick with like grace and words (for you must remember to carry a good grace and face on the matter) and the beholders will wonder where they are become: But if you in lifting vp the candlesticks with your right hand leaue all those three or fower balls vnder one of them (as by vse you may easily doe) hauing turned them all downe into your hand and holding them fast with your little, and ring finger, and take the box or candlestick &c. with your other fingers and cast the balls vp into the hollownes thereof (for so they will not rowle so soone away) the standers by will be much astonished, but it will seeme wonderfull strange, if also in shewing how there remaineth nothing vnder an other of the said candlesticks taken vp with your left hand you leaue behinde you a great ball, or any other thing, the miracle will be the greater. For first, they will thinke you haue pulled away all the balls by miracle, then that you haue brought them againe by like meanes and they nether thinke, or looke that any other thing remaineth behinde vnder any of them, and therfore after many other feates don returne to your candlesticks, remembring where you left the great ball, and in no wise touch the same, but hauing another great ball about you, seeme to bestow the same in manner and forme aforesaid vnder a candlestick which standeth farthest from that where the ball lyeth, and when you shall with words and charmes seeme to conuey the same ball from vnder the same box or candlestick &c. (and afterward bring it vnder the box &c. which you touched not) it will (I say) seeme wonderfull strange.

There are thought to be only a few remaining first editions of this book in the world, one of which is kept in Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

WorldCat link…


Annie Besant’s Thought-Forms

Annie BesantAnnie Besant (British, October 1, 1847 – September 20, 1933) was a theosophist, activist for women’s rights, socialist, public speaker, and author who supported the independence of Ireland and India. She was associated with such groups as The National Secular Society, The Social Democratic Federation, and the Fabian Society, and was a strong proponent of unions and workers’ rights. Besant joined the Theosophical Society after meeting the occultist, Helena Blavatsky in 1890, and gave many lectures on the subject.

She was a prolific writer and among her most interesting works is a volume from 1901 that she co-wrote with Charles Webster Leadbeater, titled Thought-Forms. The book is concerned with the visual manifestation of mental energy and includes many drawings and illustrations that attempt to represent the powers of the mind. The following are some examples with excerpts from their descriptions:

The Intention to Know.—Fig. 19 is of interest as showing us something of the growth of a thought-form. The earlier stage, which is indicated by the upper form, is not uncommon, and indicates the determination to solve some problem—the intention to know and to understand. Sometimes a theosophical lecturer sees many of these yellow serpentine forms projecting towards him from his audience, and welcomes them as a token that his hearers are following his arguments intelligently, and have an earnest desire to understand and to know more. A form of this kind frequently accompanies a question, and if, as is sometimes unfortunately the case, the question is put less with the genuine desire for knowledge than for the purpose of exhibiting the acumen of the questioner, the form is strongly tinged with the deep orange that indicates conceit…

The Intention to Know

High Ambition.—Fig. 20 gives us another manifestation of desire—the ambition for place or power. The ambitious quality is shown by the rich deep orange colour, and the desire by the hooked extensions which precede the form as it moves. The thought is a good and pure one of its kind, for if there were anything base or selfish in the desire it would inevitably show itself in the darkening of the clear orange hue by dull reds, browns, or greys…

High Ambition

Vague Selfish Affection.—Fig. 9 shows us also a cloud of affection, but this time it is deeply tinged with a far less desirable feeling. The dull hard brown-grey of selfishness shows itself very decidedly among the carmine of love, and thus we see that the affection which is indicated is closely connected with satisfaction at favours already received, and with a lively anticipation of others to come in the near future…

Vague Selfish Affection

In attempting to explain the phenomena of thought creating form, the authors use the example of Chladni’s sound plate, a device that uses the vibration of sound to create patterns in sand:

Chladni's Sound Plate
And, they go on to elaborate on the difficulties of making thought-form representations:

There are some serious difficulties in our way, for our conception of space is limited to three dimensions, and when we attempt to make a drawing we practically limit ourselves to two…

It is possible to do this only because similar objects are already familiar to those who look at the picture and accept the suggestion which it conveys. A person who had never seen a tree could form but little idea of one from even the most skilful painting. If to this difficulty we add the other and far more serious one of a limitation of consciousness, and suppose ourselves to be showing the picture to a being who knew only two dimensions, we see how utterly impossible it would be to convey to him any adequate impression of such a landscape as we see… The vast majority of those who look at the picture are absolutely limited to the consciousness of three dimensions, and furthermore, have not the slightest conception of that inner world to which thought-forms belong, with all its splendid light and colour.

Annie Besant had been a friend and follower of Jiddu Krishnamurti, who, though once a leader in the Theosophical Society, eventually left theosophy altogether to travel and teach his own original ideas for which he is widely known today. Though she remained a theosophist, Besant continued to follow Krishnamurti and to try and incorporate his new teachings, though somewhat unsuccessfully. The two remained friends until Besant’s death in India, in 1933, at the age of 85.








Portrait of Giacomo Leopardi by A. Ferrazzi c. 1820

Portrait of Giacomo Leopardi by A. Ferrazzi, ca. 1820

Giacomo Leopardi (b. June 29, 1798 Recanati, Italy – d. June 14, 1837 Naples) was a nineteenth century Italian poet, essayist, scholar, philosopher, philologist, and atheist. He has been ranked alongside Dante as one of the most important Italian literary figures, and praised by Schoepenhauer, Leopardi’s influence can be seen in modern modes of thought such as nihilism and existentialism. Though revered by Italians as one of their greatest thinkers, Leopardi has remained relatively obscure elsewhere. Among his important works are his Canti, a collection of poems completed in 1835, Operette Morali or “Small Moral Works”, and the Zibaldone.

Published in seven volumes in 1898, over a half century after his death, the Zibaldone is essentially a very large miscellany of observations, personal thoughts, essays, literary criticism, and philological writing. It wasn’t until 1937 when the work was republished that it became widely known as Zibaldone. Among its themes are pessimism, the human condition, and our excesses against nature. The first English translation of the work was published in Britain and America in the summer of 2013, and is over two thousand pages long.


From the Zibaldone (p. 2118 of Leopardi’s original manuscript, p.920 of the new English translation, FSG 2013):

It is pleasurable to be the spectator of vigorous, etc. etc., actions of any sort, not only those relative to man. Thunder, storm, hail, a strong wind, seen or heard, and its effects, etc. Every keen sensation in man brings with it a vein of pleasure, however unpleasurable it is within itself, however terrible, or painful, etc. I heard a farmer whose land was often severely damaged by a nearby river say that nonetheless the sight of the flood was a pleasure as it advanced, rushing swiftly toward his fields, with a thunderous noise, and carrying with it a great mass of rocks, mud, etc. And such images, while ugly in themselves, always turn out to be beautiful in poetry, in painting, in eloquence, etc.


The Zibaldone Project…



The Unit of the World

Frontispiece from Poems (1921) by Alice Meynell, from a drawing by John Singer Sargent

Frontispiece from Poems (1921) by Alice Meynell, from a drawing by John Singer Sargent

Adriaen van Ostade (Dutch, 1610 - 1685 ), The Spinner, 1652, etching on laid paper, 13.7 x 17.5 cm (5 3/8 x 6 7/8 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington

Adriaen van Ostade (Dutch, 1610 – 1685 ), The Spinner, 1652, etching on laid paper, 13.7 x 17.5 cm (5 3/8 x 6 7/8 in.), National Gallery of Art, Washington

The following is an excerpt from The Unit of the World, an essay by the Victorian writer and suffragist, Alice Meynell, from her book, The Rhythm of Life:

The quarrel of Art with Nature goes on apace.  The painters have long been talking of selecting, then of rejecting, or even, with Mr. Whistler, of supplanting.  And then Mr. Oscar Wilde, in the witty and delicate series of inversions which he headed ‘The Decay of Lying,’ declared war with all the irresponsibility naturally attending an act so serious.  He seems to affirm that Nature is less proportionate to man than is architecture; that the house is built and the sofa is made measurable by the unit measure of the body; but that the landscape is set to some other scale.  ‘I prefer houses to the open air.  In a house we all feel of the proper proportions.  Egotism itself, which is so necessary to a proper sense of human dignity, is absolutely the result of indoor life.’  Nevertheless, before it is too late, let me assert that though nature is not always clearly and obviously made to man’s measure, he is yet the unit by which she is measurable.  The proportion may be far to seek at times, but the proportion is there.  Man’s farms about the lower Alps, his summer pastures aloft, have their relation to the whole construction of the range; and the range is great because it is great in regard to the village lodged in a steep valley in the foot hills.  The relation of flower and fruit to his hands and mouth, to his capacity and senses (I am dealing with size, and nothing else), is a very commonplace of our conditions in the world.  The arm of man is sufficient to dig just as deep as the harvest is to be sown.  And if some of the cheerful little evidences of the more popular forms of teleology are apt to be baffled, or indefinitely postponed, by the retorts that suggest themselves to the modern child, there remains the subtle and indisputable witness borne by art itself: the body of man composes with the mass and the detail of the world.  The picture is irrefutable, and the picture arranges the figure amongst its natural accessories in the landscape, and would not have them otherwise.