Sunday, September 14, 2014

The elegant living — an introduction

"Upkeep is the sine qua non of elegance."

That sentence stuck to mi mind for a year or so while traveling and later moving to Graz. It's from Balzac's book "Treatise in Elegant Living". The book was in one of the several boxes we left in the workshop before leaving to Chile. The book stayed there, as we traveled a few thousands kilometers by southamerica, not the most elegant place in the world.

"Upkeep is not only this vital condition of cleanliness that obliges us to stamp things with their daily luster: the word expresses an entire system. " (Balzac, p. 50)

I just finished my PhD in physics and married Julia. Young people in an old continent, we decided to travel for a while. Get rid of this boredom Europe is so prone to produce once you have read all the books, as Verlaine would have said.

Taking with Gaspar once in Santiago, he says something along the lines of "the angst of the whole is the same as the angst of nothingness," when I tell him my plan — not even a plan: loose ideas, feelings, images of hand tool workshop, the knowledge that things are wrong... — of creating a school of crafts in Chile in a few years, changing the means of production, finding sense in what you do, eradicate poverty, and why not, create a society that is healthy, fair, loving and caring.

"The moment that the finese and grace of fabric replaced, in the European costume: the heaviness of golden woolen cloths and emblazoned coats of the laborious Middle Ages, a huge revolution had taken place in the things that make up life. Instead of burying a sum of money in perishable furniture, we used its interest for objects that were lighter, less expensive, and easier to replace, and families were no longer disinherited of capital." (ibid.)

The problem was indeed to big, and nothing was accomplished but a sober confrontation with my own ignorance. Material ignorance I'd like to call it. Not only "how does it work?" — the physicist question – but "how can I make it?". And immediately after that, what kind of society do I need to be able to make one of such "it".

Back to the drawing board. Back to Europe that is.

Get a job, get tools, learn to use the tools. Sharpen. File.

Labor Limae: the work of both the poet and the toolmaker. Symbol of a refined labour,  "Lavoro paziente, assiduo [e] meticoloso". The only road to upkeep.

"This calculation of an advanced civilization received its final developments in England. In that homeland of the comfortable, the material of life is looked upon as a great garment that is essentially mutable and subject to the whims of fashion. The rich annually change their horses, their carriages, their furniture; even diamonds are reset; everything takes a new form. The slightest piece of furniture is also manufactured in this spirit; raw materials are wisely economized. If we have not yet attained this degree of science, we have nonetheless made some progress. The inelegant carpentry of the empire is fully condemned, as are its heavy carriages and sculptures, semi-masterpieces that satisfy neither the artist nor the man of taste. We are finally making our way toward elegance and simplicity. " (ibid.)

Neither of those we found here.

We found a continent on the brink of War. Immigrants dying in illegal boats. Racism, austerity and lives without a future, leave alone any kind of sense. And cheap stuff from China and clothes from Bangladesh.

But the doors. Beautiful hand made wooden doors, remnants of a lost world, of a lost way of living, of a lost knowledge. Maybe a symbol of something.

Thinking of this while sharpening a japanese old saw on my workbench — and somehow it makes perfect sense.


Honore de Balzac, Treatise on Elegant Living


  1. As E. F. Shumacher wrote: "You can't have a sane society without sane work"

  2. Thanks for reading till the end Mark, you got some stamina.

    I liked small is beautiful. I also loved the introduction of the forgotten crafts of John Seymour: "the real craftsman does not need more than enough."

  3. Hey Sebastian, I am pretty overwhelmed right now. I found you with your video on sharpening japanese saws (and I am glad to see that that is possible so they are not as wastefull as i feared). And now that I have read a few random posts here and on your older platforms I think I will spend a lot of time here in the future reading all your interesing thoughts... I look forward to it!

    1. Thanks for your comment tre, looking forward to hear more from you.
      And go japanese, you will not regret it.