Tuesday, December 23, 2008


The following appeared today (23 December 2008) in the Los Angeles Times book blog JACKET COPY

On Borrowed Time" at year's end

The end of the year is a celebration of simplification and cliché -- everywhere you find "best of" lists, and, as Jan. 1 approaches, resolutions get made for the new year. Behind those resolutions is the idea that life is short, so you better make some changes right now. (And behind that, of course, is the familiar Latin “vita brevis, ars longa,” usually translated as “Life is short and Art is long.”)

According to "On Borrowed Time" (University of Chicago Press), an endlessly intriguing, illuminating and smart new book by Harald Weinrich, the phrase about life and art had been originally written in Greek in 400 BC by Hippocrates in a little book of “Aphorisms”: It was the very first sentence of the first aphorism (in fact, it was the first four words).

Weinrich, holder of the chair in Romance literature at the College de France, is the author of many books of which two are available in English, "Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting" and "The Linguistics of Lying," the very titles of which suggest their usefulness in our current situation in the United States regarding public and private morality. Weinrich is one of a dying breed of intellectuals (George Steiner and Roberto Calasso among them) and those already dead (Erich Auerbach, Ernst Robert Curtius and Hannah Arendt) who stock the well-read, thoughtful imaginations of readers and move with practiced skill through classical literatures and the major literatures of the world.

Weinrich's book, as it traces the complex meaning of the sentence "Life is short and art is long," offers startling juxapositions of writers such as Emily Dickinson and Pascal, John Keats and Gottfried Benn, Dante and Ben Franklin -- along with Seneca, Gide, Shakespeare and many others. He sends readers back to these writers, and even urges us to see again (if we haven't already) the film "Run Lola Run" or a popular entertainment like "Boeing Boeing" so that we will rethink such simple words as time, art and life.

Here is what he says, for instance, about art: "We must not think of the modern concept of art as it was developed in the cult of genius in the late Enlightenment and in early Romanticism. We must avoid all the ideas of inspiration, spontaneity, and creativity that are associated with this concept. Art...[is]...a complex object of knowledge formulated in rules that can be taught and learned.”

And that idea has been around a lot longer than the course "Introduction to Creative Writing" at your local community college.

The final words of Weinrich's book? “Time in short supply.” Those four words perfectly articulate the inarticulate feeling gripping some of us as we wake on Dec. 26 or Jan. 2. Weinrich will do for the brain what Alka Seltzer does for the stomach.

-- Thomas McGonigle