Seneca and Books


In Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic he wrote

[…]this reading of many different authors and books of every description. You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life travelling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships [my italics]. The same must needs be the case with those who never set about acquiring an intimate acquaintanceship with any one great writer, but skip from one to another, paying flying visits to them all


Seneca is wrong, of course. Or, at least I believe so. The world of books is to me as vast and rich as the world, the inner workings of cities. The idea that only Plato, Nabokov or Neruda is worth reading, or that I ought to spend more time with these authors to the exclusion of others. Or, that there is such a thing as genius whose writings to the exclusion of all others ought to solely compel my attention is strange and contrary to my sensibility.


The world that Lawrence opened to my 12-year old, immature self in The Rainbow, lying on the lower bunk bed in Ekiti was so different from my normal visual and visceral experiences. These people, the Brangwens, lived in a village that was nothing like what I knew a village to be. Furthermore, Lawrence opened the darkness of inner life, the perturbations lurking beneath the awkwardness of language. He made manly frailty, manly vulnerability, that masked attribute visible. But, then take Baldwin’s Go Tell it on a Mountain or Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease, and for the self same 12-year old other universes of experience came to display. But, to be condemned to just one of this three, in a fruitless monogamy rather than the fruitful and pleasurable promiscuous intercourse with the others would have been unimaginable poverty.


Seneca continues

A multitude of books only gets in one’s way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read.


He ends this letter, as is usual, with lesson from one of the greats

My thought for today is something which I found in Epicurus […] ‘A cheerful poverty,’ he says, ‘is an honourable state.’ But if it is cheerful it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more […] You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.


I am drawn to the conclusion that the logical slip in this letter from parsimony in reading to a discussion about the limits of wealth, for Seneca are inter-related: what is essential reading (canonical texts) and how do we know whether we have read enough? On the face of it, these two questions, of wealth and books, do not seem related. The accumulation of wealth and material goods, like gluttony, are, in my book, undesirable activities, whereas, books, (now that’s totally different), are a mark of scholarship, of knowledge, and ultimately relate to the good. And hence there’s no surfeit of books.


Seneca’s letter by a subtle slight of hand raises the question whether books too, like all other material goods, can become mere objects, symbols that stand for other things. And, that books can be collected, eroticized, fetishized, and then displayed on shelves like mine are not for their intrinsic value but for their symbolic value.


Tolstoy’s parable How much land does a man need? Explores the same theme but again focuses on wealth but can be read as an exploration of the limits of acquisition of any object including books. I think I have just discovered that my continuing and boundless collection of books is clear evidence of poverty, but of what kind of poverty?


These thoughts accompany me to Budapest. Another indulgence in Seneca’s light. It’s 20 degrees in the shade! And the sky is impeccably blue with not a streak of cloud. The light too is like Provence, bright and like a clear and clean windscreen, unlike the murky, smeary not-light of winter in Oslo.


Lunch is alfresco again today, at Kelet. There’s a girl sitting in front of me in a white lace top and a short skirt, polka dot blue and purple tights. She has on purple shades in black frames. I’m surprised that she’s brought out with her a stuffed pony, quite sizeable in brown felt and mustard manes. She has it tucked behind her with its head sticking to one side. Strange. Worse still it’s a stuffed horse head and with its torso on a hobby stick, a hobby horse no doubt! But what for?


Her friend has black hair probably dyed from brunette brown. She has on a black vest with bra straps showing through. Her denim jacket is strewn across her knees on her black skirt. Her shades like open visors poised on her forehead.


My waitress is another of these tall Hungarian girls, almost 6 feet tall. Her lips full and parted, the face striking and open, inquisitive, interested, as if the world was a book to be investigated and comprehended. I had thought she was young until I noticed her hair- prematurely grey, truly grey, not white, not silver, but dark charcoal grey, highlighted in red-orange and bunched into a ribbon at the crown.


I’ve never worked out what it is that gives a face its emotional signature. What turns an innocent born person into one with deviousness slipping like a chemise beneath the dress or sourness in the corners of the lips like grime in between the fingernails? There’s also the shiftiness or shyness, in the wake of deep emotions. Like saying I’ve said too much already by my smile, by standing too close, by a lingering touching, now my body is turned towards you but my face is averted.


Later, at St Stephen’s cathedral the voices are a hubbub except for the occasional triumphant soprano, singing an octave higher than the background din. The echo is of the sea at night when the street and other sounds have gone to sleep and all that is left is the roll of the waves and the pounding of the sand. I shut my eyes in the cathedral, to shut out what there is of the street noise only to discover the inner sea sound unwavering and rhythmical, I suppose you could say it’s a rhapsody that begins forcefully from my chest and throbs into my torso and then groin.


At the Castle up above Buda, looking out across the Danube at the parliament building, and far in the distance we saw the cathedral, once again. The sky had clouded over somewhat.


We had come up by funicular railway but walked back down. As we approached the Chain Bridge a flock of cyclists flew by through a tunnel and as each went through they shouted and the reverberations were musical and odd as the voices of women, children and men commingled, a flare lighting up the night sky and in a wild breeze too, breathless.


Dinner was in a restaurant opposite Elizabeth Park. A group of young men were drinking at the end of the restaurant when we arrived, maybe 10 of them. This was possibly a prelude to going out on the night. I had deer stew and Jan had ratatouille with sausages, red wine to top this off. We walked the long 3 miles back across the river to our hotel. And to finish the night off I had apricot palinka and Jan plum. I haven’t had spirits in decades. This burnt my mouth and the inner linings of my stomach. But I took it like a man! Even my long dead grandmother swore by schnapps and she had no trouble knocking back a few glasses.


It is Sunday. We’ve checked out of our hotel and are passing the time of day at Kelet, inside rather than on the pavement this time. The auspicious Spring has come to an abrupt termination. It is cloudy, has just stopped raining and it is dreary and cold. We are not alone. The place is full of the young and studious. Kelet is like a private library of second hand books. The girl, opposite is sitting with a friend and drinking a latte. Her friend is having a glass of red wine. They’re doing what young women do, gossiping, giggling and nodding. One plays with her dangling earring. She has a scarf wrapped round her neck. It’s linen and Matt blue with glass studs. Her friend rests her head against a bookshelf, with legs crossed and trussed in tight denim jeans. It’s a familiar sight everywhere where a cafe culture exists in the context of freedom. You won’t see it in large swathes of the Middle East.


The conditions of freedom not only determine but condition your dress and your associations. These conditions dictate whether your smile and laughter is unhindered, that it’s without guilt and shame. Modesty is not the aim of the barrel of scrutiny, it’s your mind, the capacity of the soul to fret its wings like a bird ready to take flight that is the target of the religious police.


Seneca’s thesis is that a few books will do as will few travel destinations. This is a position I would not have anticipated, never mind talk of endorsing. But viewed in the light of Tolstoy’s parable, it becomes imaginable that all covetous behaviours, whether apparently seeking a primary, some would say greater good or not, amounts to the same thing, promiscuity allied to gluttony.


We are now at the airport on the way back home. The greyness and dampness has set in properly. The distant hills are cloaked in mist. The iridescent green of the trees once attractive is now dull, a soldier’s khaki drill. But the lounge is agog with noise- glass clinking, the buzz of voices, that clack clack of heels, high heels, and the delightful singsong chirping of children. We could be in a cathedral and maybe we are. The imagined world is alive and able to metamorphose, amoebic in its capacity. It can be whatever it chooses and books and travel are its ready accomplices.


This trip had started with Seneca’s letter and as I’m walking towards the Danube, on our first morning, I stopped for a Turkish coffee and hummus at Kelet, a café and library. I sat under awnings on the pavement. It was my first alfresco lunch this spring.


Budapest is a curious mixture of Central European 19th century architecture and modern Soviet brutalist buildings. The sculptures too are that square and grand style of the common man, the peasant standing or toiling, broad shouldered, supported by his female companion. Adam and Eve reconfigured for the 20th century, striving forward to what we now know to be the tragic demise of Communism.


Budapest is a youthful city but the incidental elderly person, the ancients are, very ancient, sloping and bent, wrinkled and leathery, monuments to harsher, poorer times. The youthful style is slim or skinny trousers with tee shirts. But there’s the other style, frumpy, outsized, dull even, wood lice suddenly exposed to light and scurrying blindly and crazed.


My coffee is Chelelektu, from Ethiopia made in the Turkish style. It has the most remarkable aroma of dust, damp earth, Africa in the armpits, and the taste is bitter , bitter and then there’s the surprise of strawberries in the undertow. All this in the shadow of mountain ash, the leaves lightly glancing off the air, in the sunlight.


A young mother has just walked past with her toddler son. He is stopping every few steps to pick things off the pavement, pebbles from the bottom of tree trunks, touching a water hydrant, exploring. His mother is the archetypical modern mother, slim and in skinny jeans. She has none of the stigmata of motherhood, not even a wedding ring. There’s an infinite procession of the beautiful, the confident, of strides that thrust forward like the Soviet styled sculpture. Then there are the wallpaper clinging like vine to the invisible walls.


I stopped for a second cup of coffee, this time cappuccino. It’s a small place, for artists I suppose since it smells of oils and turpentine. And there are easels about. The people have that customary arty look, beards, ponytails, and a friendliness that’s reserved for kindred spirit- you can’t be in here if you weren’t one of us!


My walk has taken me from Buda through to Pest, across the Danube. I have wandered through the great Market Hall. Then the rest of the time was spent simply ambling along back streets with cafes, restaurants, shops, Thai massage places, and vacant places. The sun and the girls were out. Here the girls, the teenagers and those in their early twenties clump together like bushes in the Savannah. Giggling, sitting cross-legged on the grass or pavements. Even the girders of the bridges are reclined upon like beds in the most private of apartments except this was in the full glare of the sun ablaze in the sky, a magnificent single eye staring down at the youth of today.


My barista is a dark haired pretty woman, young and with a warm, welcoming smile. She has hairy forearms, and her skin has that dark sediment of the Turks and other invaders. Her buttocks, the gluteus of peasant girls, strong and eye catching. Like all the young the world over, she is on her mobile phone, chatting and flicking her hair behind her ears, standing on tiptoe to sit on the bar stool, and tossing her other arm across her chest under her breasts. When she isn’t tugging at her scarf, she is rocking on her bottom. She has just asked if I need the wifi and I am caught between guilt for describing her without permission and replying “No, I don’t need wifi”.


It is travel, books, different and varied authors who make all this thinking and talking to myself possible. I’ve never thought it was anything but good. But now after Seneca, who knows?


Photos by Jan Oyebode

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