Essays

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Bacon's Essays: Of Nature in Men

When Francis Bacon writes of nature in men, he means “The inherent or essential quality or constitution of a thing; the inherent and inseparable combination of properties giving any object, event, quality, emotion, etc., its fundamental character.” At least, that’s the definition in the OED illustrated by a quote from this essay. (I love it when I find Bacon in the OED!)

“Nature is often hidden; sometimes overcome; seldom extinguished.” You can’t always detect a person’s true nature, or sometimes even your own. You can overcome aspects of your nature, but never fully extinguish them.

Maybe that’s true. I quit smoking nine years ago (my addictive nature) and have no genuine desire to smoke anything ever again, but for some reason yesterday as I got into my car to go home after spending 3 hours in the cold wind planting saplings with Treefolks, the thought of smoking a cigarette strolled lightly through my mind — and out again, but it’s still in there!

Gaining victory over nature

Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Lifebelt_sketch
Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketch of a lifebelt

This essay speaks to the eternal struggles of us humans with ourselves. It manifests in many ways, but I’m going to use writing examples.

I know so many writers who say they can’t write in the morning, or write short, or long, or plot, or not plot, or write every day, or write romance, or write action scenes. Lots of can’ts in our declarations of our essential writerly natures. Some of it matters, in terms of what we write. I don’t seem to have any darkness in me, for example, whereas some writers are darkness all the way through. But many of those cants are excuses for not finishing or selling books.

“He that seeketh victory over his nature, let him not set himself too great, nor too small tasks; for the first will make him dejected by often failings; and the second will make him a small proceeder, though by often prevailings.”

In writing terms, he’s saying set goals of the appropriate size. If you’re just starting out, writing your first book, don’t expect yourself to write 3,000 words a day. You’ll fail and give yourself another can’t. But don’t be a lazy wimp and set a trivial goal of 50 words a day. You’ll never finish the thing. If you’re super-busy, 100 words is a reasonable goal, but if, like most people, you can carve two hours out of your day (training yourself to write during those hours and not pine for other ones), 1000 words a day is an excellent goal. You can finish a 90,000 word novel (first draft) in three measly months at that rate!

“And at the first let him practise with helps, as swimmers do with bladders or rushes; but after a time let him practise with disadvantages, as dancers do with thick shoes.”

Writer translation: Let your first book or two be in the simplest genre that you enjoy: short contemporary romance, say, or Star Trek novels, or short breezy thrillers. Well-established genres with well-defined features of plots and characters. It’s hard enough just to sit there and write for your designated time span each day, much less to be totally original on all fronts. Then, as you gain skills and confidence, continue to challenge yourself with richer settings, twistier plots, deeper insights — whichever course your tastes and talents send you on.

Where nature is mighty

“For it breeds great perfection, if the practice be harder than the use. ” This reminds me of Robert Browning’s famous advice, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, else what’s a heaven for?” Strive toward something grand, is what they’re both saying. Challenge yourself.

Wild_Turkey
James Audubon’s Wild Turkey

“Where nature is mighty, and therefore the victory hard, the degrees had need be, first to stay and arrest nature in time; like to him that would say over the four and twenty letters when he was angry; then to go less in quantity; as if one should, in forbearing wine, come from drinking healths, to a draught at a meal; and lastly, to discontinue altogether.”

They only had 24 letters in Bacon’s day. I & J were variants of one another, as were U and V, although the four began to be distinguished in the 16th century. I love this bit of advice, which is still apt. Don’t answer until you’ve recited the alphabet, twice, under your breath.

But Bacon recommends going cold turkey if you can handle it: “But if a man have the fortitude, and resolution, to enfranchise himself at once, that is the best: Optimus ille animi vindex laedentia pectus, Vincula qui rupit, dedoluitque semel.” (He is the best assertor of the soul, who bursts the bonds that gall his breast and suffers all, at once.)

Bend nature to extremes

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Willow sculpture at Anne Hathaway’s house

“Neither is the ancient rule amiss, to bend nature, as a wand, to a contrary extreme, whereby to set it right, understanding it, where the contrary extreme is no vice.”

If it’s not risky in terms of bad habits, push your nature to the opposite extreme. Write horror! Write short stories! Write a night or first thing in the morning. Write 4,000 words in one exhausting day. You’ll learn something about your writing self by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone once in a while.

“Let not a man force a habit upon’ himself, with a perpetual continuance, but with some intermission.” Hm. I think this means, take a break now and then. A day off from writing recharges the batteries. 

Buried nature

Wenceslas_Hollar_-_The_young_man_and_the_cat_bride
Wenceslas Hollar (1607-1677), The young man and the cat bride.

“But let not a man trust his victory over his nature, too far; for nature will lay buried a great time, and yet revive, upon the occasion or temptation.” Like that little smoking twitch I experienced yesterday. 

“Like as it was with AEsop’s damsel, turned from a cat to a woman, who sat very demurely at the board’s end, till a mouse ran before her. Therefore, let a man either avoid the occasion altogether; or put himself often to it, that he may be little moved with it.”

This advice is better illustrated with addiction or exercise examples. Either avoid all situations in which there is smoking (easily done these days) or alcohol (not at all easy), or attend them in order to fortify your ability to resist the impulse.

(I don’t think the illustration is actually relevant, but it’s the right period and it’s cool, yah?)

 

 

The secret of happiness

“A man’s nature is best perceived in privateness, for there is no affectation; in passion, for that putteth a man out of his precepts; and in a new case or experiment, for there custom leaveth him.” This seems self-explanatory. People don’t trouble to hide their natures in private and they tend to reveal themselves in extreme situations.

“They are happy men, whose natures sort with their vocations; otherwise they may say, multum incola fuit anima mea (my soul has been long a sojourner); when they converse in those things, they do not affect.”

I think the secret to happiness is finding a way to make a living (and make a positive contribution to society) doing something you love to do. Otherwise, you have a longer road to travel to reach happiness.

“In studies, whatsoever a man commandeth upon himself, let him set hours for it; but whatsoever is agreeable to his nature, let him take no care for any set times; for his thoughts will fly to it, of themselves; so as the spaces of other business, or studies, will suffice.”

You can always find time to screw around in social media, so don’t bother to schedule that! But almost all writers agree that it’s essential to set specific times for writing. Part of that has to do with the sheer discipline of getting things done, but it also has to do with training your mind to generate stories in response to certain cues.

And here’s the money quote. It’s a good one this time. “A man’s nature, runs either to herbs or weeds; therefore let him seasonably water the one, and destroy the other.”

Herb garden at Coughton Court
Herb garden at Coughton Court

Bacon's Essays: Of Masques and Triumphs

Masques were a very popular form of entertainment at court in the Jacobethan period (James + Elizabeth. Bacon pretends to think little of them, but he wrote several and must seen many. By our standards, they sound fairly static, pompous, heavy-handed on the morality front, although apparently often including half-naked noblewomen.

Wikipedia has a clear definition: “A masque involved music and dancing, singing and acting, within an elaborate stage design, in which the architectural framing and costumes might be designed by a renowned architect, to present a deferential allegory flattering to the patron.”

Great state and pleasure

oceania
Oceania, design by Inigo Jones, for Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Blackness, 1605.

Bacon begins by apologizing for including such a trivial topic in his collection of essays, which are generally about weightier matters. “But yet, since princes will have such things, it is better they should be graced with elegancy, than daubed with cost.” If you must do it, do it right.

Then he seems to contradict himself, and I can’t resolve it. Whately’s no help here. First Bacon says, “Dancing to song, is a thing of great state and pleasure.” Then, after specifying some features, like singing in quire (chorus), he says, “Acting in song, especially in dialogues, hath an extreme good grace; I say acting, not dancing (for that is a mean and vulgar thing).”

So which is it, Frank? State and pleasure, or mean and vulgar? We’re standing here with our foot lifted, ready to trip it feetly.

A little farther on, he says, “Turning dances into figure, is a childish curiosity.” Here I think he means pantomime, a widely-shared opinion.

Bit of a digression: Inigo Jones, whose lovely designs for costumes have survived, was mostly an architect. He was appointed Surveyor-General of the King’s Works (King James I) in 1615. This was an age of tremendous building of fantastically lavish prestige houses, as they’re called — many of which you can go and visit today. Jones participated in the design of masques because everyone who could contribute, did so, to gain the favour of King and court. Francis Bacon was a philosopher and a great legal scholar, for pity’s sake, and he wrote the silly things.

Petty wonderment

That’s almost an oxymoron for me, but not for Bacon. I think he means things that are flashy or too obvious. “[T]hose things which I here set down, are such as do naturally take the sense”; not things that force your attention.

daughterofniger“Let the scenes abound with light, specially colored and varied.” I think masques were usually performed indoors, at night, so light would indeed be a part of the spectacle that could be designed. I don’t know for sure, but colored light can be produced by putting a candle or torch behind a piece of thin colored silk. “The colors that show best by candle-light are white, carnation, and a kind of sea-water-green; and oes, or spangs, as they are of no great cost, so they are of most glory.” Os and spangs must be spangles – bits of reflective material.

“Let the gongs be loud and cheerful, and not chirpings or pulings. Let the music likewise be sharp and loud, and well placed.” We don’t want mealy-mouthed music. Let it ring out!

On the costume front: “As for rich embroidery, it is lost and not discerned.” That’s good cost-saving advice there. Don’t embellish to no effect! “Let the suits of the masquers be graceful, and such as become the person, when the vizors are off.” Vizor is a mask. Certainly your want your costumes to flatter the wearer, especially when the wearer is someone like Queen Anne.

He considers the olfactory sense as well – Jacobean sensurround. “Some sweet odors suddenly coming forth, without any drops falling, are, in such a company as there is steam and heat, things of great pleasure and refreshment.”

“But all is nothing except the room be kept clear and neat.” Yes, indeed.

The antimasque

An antimasque (also spelled antemasque) is a comic or grotesque dance presented before or Tempest-masque-1between the acts of a masque, a type of dramatic composition. It’s usually a spectacle of disorder, to contrast with the performance of divine order in the masque proper. You need to know that for Bacon’s advice to make sense.

“Let anti-masques not be long; they have been commonly of fools, satyrs, baboons, wild-men, antics, beasts, sprites, witches, Ethiops, pigmies, turquets, nymphs, rustics, Cupids, statuas moving, and the like. As for angels, it is not comical enough, to put them in anti-masques; and anything that is hideous, as devils, giants, is on the other side as unfit.”

Bacon was raised by a strict Calvinist, remember. He doesn’t approve of putting angels in a scene of discord.

A brief word about Triumphs

These are grand public displays, most likely processions of some kind. The Columbus Day Parade in New York is a sort of Triumph, with floats representing this organization or that tradition.

“For justs, and tourneys, and barriers; the glories of them are chiefly in the chariots, wherein the challengers make their entry; especially if they be drawn with strange beasts: as lions, bears, camels, and the like; or in the devices of their entrance; or in the bravery of their liveries; or in the goodly furniture of their horses and armor. But enough of these toys.”

This float with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations is so Jacobean, it’s absolutely perfect. No strange beasts, but it’s big and colorful and an expression of the government’s military might.

float

An example

A tiny taste of the sort of thing that went on in a masque, from Ben Jonson’s 1605 The Masque of Beauty, found at Luminarium. They’re usually mythological in nature, and might have a moral — or not so much. They will usually include a fair amount of thinly-veiled flattery for the monarch, his queen, and any other major patrons who might be around.

B O R E A S.

W

 Hich, among these is AlbionNeptunes Sonne? 
  
  I A N V A R I V S.

W

 Hat ignorance dares make that question? 
Would any aske, who Mars were in the wars? 
Or, which is Hesperus, among the starres? 
Of the bright Planets, which is Sol? Or can 
A doubt arise, ‘mong creatures, which is man? 
Behold, whose eyes do dart Promethian fire 
Throughout this all; whose precepts do inspire 
The rest with duty; yet commanding, cheare: 
And are obeyed, more with loue, then feare.