Drawing to conclusions

“This is the day of the Valour of Ignorance. It has been pathetic during the making of this book to discover how the mighty are put down and the mediocre are exalted in our midst. Ignorance is rampant; incompetence glorified. Every one has a message, few have knowledge. Doubtless with time all will be well, but it is almost certain that scarce an American of this pushing, advertising generation will be remembered. Notoriety and cash are all of America today. The little men who draw, or steal, are backed up by little men who write, with an itch for new things, the things of the moment that come and go in a moment. Nothing lasts, nothing is permanent. Everything is undermined. …”

My quote for the day is lifted from a manual on pen draughtsmanship that once belonged to my grandfather, Harry Roy Warren — whose steady hands, and steady eye as a dip-pen draughtsman (cartographer and illuminator) I recall with envy and pride. The book resurfaced in a flea market on the weekend, and I have it back. The passage is the opening of a “Postscript to Preface” which continues through a few giant pages, and concludes, “Thanksgiving Day, 1920.” The writer is Joseph Pennell, N.A., illustrator, etcher, lithographer, colourist, and incidentally friend and biographer of Whistler. His wife, Elizabeth Robins Pennell, orphan child of a Catholic convent, was also accomplished in the draughting and authorial lines. (Mr Pennell was a Quaker.)

His remarks on Prohibition are among the gems: he holds it responsible for more societal degeneration than the entire nineteenth century, and blames the spirit of “temperance” for the rise of golf. He notes that from the very moment they gave up drink, Mahometan civilization dried up.

The tone reminds me happily of Grandpa, who had similar views, though perhaps more radical, for Grandpa was under the impression that nothing of artistic value had been made for at least four centuries in the West, and rather longer elsewhere. Which was no reason not to do one’s best.

I am tempted to transcribe the whole essay: it is surely out of copyright by now. Perhaps the whole book, but the illustrations (in line, wood engraving, photogravure, &c) are the best part.

Perhaps a footnote is required for that title, The Valour of Ignorance. It was by Homer Lea (1909). Much derided by the (Wilsonian) liberals and progressives of its day, and for decades after, it was perhaps the most prescient tract on “applied multiculturalism” ever published. It correctly anticipated Pearl Harbour by decades; might even have given the Japanese the idea. It circulated the notion of cultural idiocy, and civilizational foibles that though worse now, are hardly new. The author, hunched and deformed, less than five feet high even by the tailor’s tape, had failed to graduate from West Point. (Such men are invariably geniuses, who become adventurers in China, if not Greece.) Though dead in 1912, Lea also predicted the aggressions of Kaiser, Hitler, Stalin, and so forth.

Verily, one of Pennell’s berations is of salesmen who claim that one may learn drawing from a book. He makes clear bright and early that for that one needs some natural ability (including the capacity for obedience), and a competent drawing master. All a book can do is give you something to look at.

I am, I suppose, a connoisseur of Reactionaries — religious and irreligious alike — so that I can appreciate both Gobineau and de Maistre; Nietzsche and (see Saturday) Baudelaire. They point our only way forward. It just happens to be backwards.

Dear Grandpa: another of his books I once retrieved was The Spiritual and Ascetic Letters of Savonarola (Mowbray’s Devotional Library, circa 1904). What a Methodist from rural Ontario was doing with the works of the arch-firebrand Dominican friar of quattrocento Florence is a topic on which I delight to meditate. For Grandpa was also a Freemason. But he rolled his own cigarettes (for more than seven decades), and liked his whisky neat.

Perhaps Reaction runs in my family; as madness in so many others.