The Book of Friends (aphorisms)

From The Book of Friends

by Hugo von Hofmannsthal

translated by Douglas Robertson

Of all the passions, the one we are most ignorant of is indolence: although its violence is imperceptible, it is the most ardent and the most cunning of all of them. — La Rochefoucauld*

There are not two people on earth who could not be rendered mortal enemies through a devilishly contrived indiscretion.

The consoler brags lightly.

The problem of family life consists in this: that the legal presence of people of diverse characters and ages is bound to become essentially a collective presence thanks to their shared mode of living.

Beloved people are sketches of possible paintings.

There is nothing more uncommon in the world than will, and yet the meager quantum of will allotted to human beings suffices to overturn all their judgments.

All fashionable vices pass for virtues. — Molière

The social world can and may be understood only allegorically. In this way the entire social world of the modern age (from La Bruyère and Madame Sévigné onwards) may be comprehended as a single great mythology.

There are as many individuals as there are encounters.

The renunciation of a mistress bespeaks a flagging imagination.

Every significant new acquaintance takes us apart and puts us back together. It is of the greatest significance, so we undergo a regeneration.

Visitors to Athens, after a few days spent in familiar conversation with Plato, ask him to lead them to his namesake, the famous philosopher.

The greatest things need only be spoken simply: they are spoiled by emphasis. The most trivial must be spoken nobly: they endure only by means of expression, tone, and manner. — La Bruyère

Children are amusing because they are easy to amuse.

In superior human beings there are a productive and an unproductive form of indolence, and they flow together into a region that eludes the eye, a region seemingly without clear borders.

What love stimulates in fits and starts is plastic energy. Hence in love as in art are there so many abandoned rough drafts that lack the energy needed for their completion.

What one does simply is simple to do. — Wladimir Ghika

Vocal music is miraculous because it consists in domesticating what is by default an organ of unbridled egoism: the human voice.


Depth must be concealed. Where? On the surface.

The world tolerates scoundrels, but only extraordinary people satisfy it.
The in-between are in a difficult position and bear a bad conscience easily.

Simple characters, not complex ones, are hard to understand.

The most dangerous of our prejudices prevail within ourselves against ourselves. Their dissolution is the creative act.

Reality is unchangingly near.

The most dangerous adversary of strength is weakness.

It takes a whole life to perceive how thingishly, objectively, things behave; and how humanly, subjectively, human beings do.

It was not through the categorical imperative, which is always on everybody’s lips, that Kant exerted such a powerful influence on generation after generation, but rather through his criticism, in which the shyness, the worldlessness, of the Germans found its abstract expression.

Forms enliven and kill.

Even this is an element of inner freedom; the youth in us must be swept away by the grown man, the grown man by the old one, the maiden by the woman of middle age: there is only one priest at the shrine.

All that is living is fluid, but fluidity is not the form of life. — Rudolf Pannwitz

Even the perception of differences between ourselves and others requires a moment of elevation.

There is an enthusiasm arising from weakness and another arising from strength; the first is akin to sentimentality, the second is opposite from it.

The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. — William Blake

* Hugo von Hofmannsthal quoted the French aphorisms in their original language.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), an Austrian writer of the late empire and the first republic, began his literary career as an accomplished lyric poet much influenced by French symbolism and Jugendstil (the German name for art nouveau). In English-speaking countries he is best known for his later activity as the librettist of six of Richard Strauss’s operas and the author of The Lord Chandos Letter (1902), an anti-poetics of modernism in the form of a fictional letter to the founder of modern empirical science, Francis Bacon. Like The Lord Chandos Letter, The Book of Friends takes the early modern period as its starting point: its title is a literal translation of album amicorum, the name for a kind of scrapbook in which young gentlemen of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries would collect signatures, witticisms, and other mementos from people they met on their travels. The friends in Hofmannsthal’s album amicorum are writers that he has come to know in his years as a reader; in terms of geographical and historical distance they range from Confucius and Plato to his fellow-Austrian Franz Grillparzer and his contemporary André Gide. He intersperses quotations from their works with his own typically cagey but often insinuatingly incisive aphorisms. The juxtaposition of such a diverse collection of thinkers under the conceptual auspices of friendship can be either encouraging or disquieting, depending on whether one views Hofmannsthal’s inescapable implication that the human world has always been a highly bewildering place in a positive or a negative light.

Douglas Robertson is a writer and translator who lives in Baltimore, Maryland.