No equal

Ulrich stubbornly expanded on this point: “What one needs in life is merely the conviction that one’s business is doing better than one’s neighbor’s. Your pictures, my mathematics, somebody else’s wife and children—everything that can assure a person that he is in no way unusual but that in this way of being in no way unusual he will not so easily find his equal!”

—Robert Musil, The Man without Qualities, chap. 54

Even though

And what amazes me as I hit the motorway is not the fact that everyone loses someone, but that everyone loves someone. It seems like such a massive waste of energy—and we all do it, all the people beetling along between the white lines, merging, converging, overtaking. We each love someone, even though they will die. And we keep loving them, even when they are not there to love any more. And there is no logic or use to any of this, that I can see.

Anne Enright, The Gathering, p. 28

A message from the diving bell

Une étrange euphorie m’a alors envahi. Non seulement j’étais exilé, paralysé, muet, à moitié sourd, privé de tous les plaisirs et réduit à une existence de méduse, mais en plus j’étais affreux à voir. J’ai été pris du fou rire nerveux que finit par provoquer une accumulation de catastrophes lorsque, après un dernier coup de sort, on décide de le traiter comme une plaisanterie. Mes râles de bonne humeur ont d’abord interloqué Eugénie avant qu’elle ne cède à la contagion de mon hilarité. Nous avons ri jusqu’aux larmes. La fanfare municipale s’est alors mise à jouer une valse et j’étais si gai que je me serais volontiers levé pour inviter Eugénie à danser si cela avait été de circonstance. Nous aurions virevolté sur les kilomètres de carrelage. Depuis ces événements, quand j’emprunte la grande galerie, je trouve à l’impératrice un petit air narquois.

—Jean-Dominique Bauby, Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, p. 31

My muddy translation, with help from my dictionary and Google Translate:

[Bauby has discovered his reflection in the glass of a vitrine displaying an effigy of Empress Eugénie, 19th-century patron of the hospital where Bauby is a patient.]

I was overcome by a strange euphoria. Not only was I an exile, paralyzed, half-deaf, dumb, deprived of all pleasures, and reduced to the existence of a jellyfish, but what’s more I looked a fright. I was taken by a fit of the nervous giggles that can only end in disaster when, after a final stroke of fate, you take it all for a joke. At first, Eugénie was taken aback by my groans of delight before giving into the contagion of my hilarity. We laughed nearly to the point of tears. So then the local brass band struck up a waltz, and I felt so gay that I gladly stood up to invite Eugénie to dance, whether that made any difference [?]. We twirled down the miles of tiled floor. Since this affair, whenever I take a turn in the great hall, I find that the Empress has a mocking look.

Appalachian whiskey

The Scots-Irish seemed little moved by the magnificence of the Great Forest. The Germans were just as brutal to the land, only neater and more law-abiding about it. The English had already swept away coastal pineries to build tobacco plantations run by slaves. They all took from the forest without thinking of anything but their own desires, certainly not thinking that there might be anything sacred there. In this the new Americans were solidly in the mainstream of Western thought. What is distinctive about Appalachia is not how it differed from the rest of the country, but how it distilled the American experience to moonshine clarity. And how long the hangover is lasting.

—Chris Bolgiano, The Appalachian Forest: A Search for Roots and Renewal

Can’t argue

If a child’s diaper is changed six times a day until he is 30 months old, he will have had his diaper changed more than 5,400 times. Anything a child experiences 5,400 times is an important part of his life for him and for those who create the experience.

—Diane Trister Dodge et al., The Creative Curriculum for Infants, Toddlers, and Twos


BRUCE: In my life I’m not going to be afraid to blind the horses, Prudence.

PRUDENCE: You ought to become a veterinarian.

BRUCE (very offended): You’ve missed the metaphor.

PRUDENCE: I haven’t missed the metaphor. I made a joke.

BRUCE: You just totally missed the metaphor. I could never love someone who missed the metaphor.

—Christopher Durang, Beyond Therapy, I:i

An explanation

MOTHER MIRIAM RUTH. You’ll never find the answer to everything, Doctor. One and one is two, yes, but that leads to four and then to eight and soon to infinity. The wonder of science is not in the answers it provides but in the questions it uncovers. For every miracle it finally explains, ten thousand more miracles come into being.

—John Pielmeier, Agnes of God

Be prepared?

…Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and signposts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken. On a tragedy of that kind our national morality is duly silent. It assumes that preparation against danger is in itself a good, and that men, like nations, are the better for staggering through life fully armed. The tragedy of preparedness has scarcely been handled, save by the Greeks. Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.

—E.M. Forster, Howards End, chap. 12

Constructive criticism

…[William Faulkner] didn’t seem remote to everybody in being our great writer. I know a story about him, though he never knew anybody knew of it, I’d bet. Mississippi is full of writers, and I heard this from the person it was told to. A lady had decided she’d write a novel and got along fine till she came to the love scene. “So,” she told my friend, “I thought, there’s William Faulkner, sitting right up there in Oxford. Why not send it to William Faulkner and ask him?” So she sent it to him, and time went by, and she didn’t ever hear from him, and so she called him up. Because there he was. She said, “Mr. Faulkner, did you ever get that love scene I sent you?” He said yes, he had got it. And she said, “Well, what do you think of it?” And he said, “Well, honey, it’s not the way I’d do it—but you go right ahead.” Now, wasn’t that gentle of him?

Leta’s acting moment

HANNAH: It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in. That’s why you can’t believe in the afterlife, Valentine. Believe in the after, by all means, but not the life. Believe in God, the soul, the spirit, the infinite, believe in angels if you like, but not in the great celestial get-together for an exchange of views. If the answers are in the back of the book I can wait, but what a drag. Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final.

—Tom Stoppard, Arcadia, sc. 7

Good things

Gloria liked rules, rules were Good Things. Gloria liked rules that said you couldn’t speed or park on double-yellow lines, rules that told you not to drop litter or deface buildings. She was sick and tired of hearing people complain about speed cameras and parking wardens as if there were some reason that they should be exempt from them. When she was younger she used to fantasize about sex and love, about keeping chickens and bees, being taller, running through fields with a black-and-white border collie. Now she daydreamed about being the keeper at the gates, of standing with the ultimate ledger and ticking off the names of the dead as they appeared before her, giving them the nod through or the thumbs-down. All those people who parked in bus bays and ran the red light on pedestrian crossings were going to be very sorry when Gloria peered at them over the top of her spectacles and asked them to account for themselves.

—Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn, p. 22

Believe it or not, Leta was flattered when I told her that I read this passage and thought of her.


John Dean generally puts his biography subject, President Warren Harding, in the best possible light, but he does quote this assessment by H. L. Mencken of Harding’s speechmaking:

It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of a dark abysm… of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and rumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash. (p. 73, quoted from Paul Boller, Jr., Presidential Anecdotes)

A man to be reckoned with

I’m enjoying reading Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Newby, perhaps the last of the rank amateur explorers, has perhaps seen a small bump in sales of his books as a result of his recent demise. Newby and his friend Hugh Carless set off to explore the remotest bits of north-east Afghanistan in 1956, and the book is the record of the trip.

The whole ill-prepared Newby-Carless expedition reminds me of my friends Chuck and Mike during the Three Mile Island disaster in the 1970s. Chuck and Mike were living in New York, downwind of the crippled reactor in Harrisburg, Pa. (Anne and I were living in Philadelphia then). At the height of the crisis, when we all thought the dang thing might blow, in the middle of the night, Chuck and Mike said, “let’s get outta here,” and jumped in their car. They were on the road for several hours before they realized they were driving west, into Pennsylvania.

Anyway. Having honorably failed in their attempt to get to the top of Mir Samir, a 19,880-foot mountain, Carless and Newby wanted to push on to the province of Nuristan, but met with resistance from their local horse drivers, who feared its Wild West-style reputation. Nuristan was converted to Islam only recently, and by the sword. After arguing with the porters for several hours,

…Hugh lost his temper.

‘Go back then!’ he said. ‘Go back to Jangalak and tell your people that Newby Seb and I have gone to Nuristan alone—and that you let us go alone! They will call you women.’

As soon as he had said this is was abundantly clear that both Abdul Ghiyas and Badar Khan were prepared to let us do this very thing. Hugh was forced to try a more subtle approach….

‘When I return from Nuristan… I shall demand audience of General Ubaidullah Khan and tell him what you said about “idolatrous unbelievers.” General Ubaidullah Khan is a man of importance and …he is also a Nuristani.’

The effect of this was remarkable. At once all opposition ceased. Before we finally fell asleep long after midnight I asked Hugh who General Ubaidullah Khan was.

‘So far as I know,’ he said, ‘he doesn’t exist. I just invented him; but I think he’s going to be a very useful man to know.’