Magical Textual Tour

August 1, 2009

the primitive reptile within

Now for something completely different.  A tour round my head, by way of text.  I have collected [mostly] pithy quotes, ones that penetrate to the center of life, that I used to include as tags on my email.  I stopped because I figured they didn’t go with my “professional” personna.  Here goes:

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!
Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville

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And how can you bring it home to them? By an inspiration? By a vision? A dream? Brothers! People! Why has life been given you? In the deep, deaf stillness of midnight, the doors of the death cells are being swung open–and great-souled people are being dragged out to be shot. On all the railroads of the country this very minute, right now, people who have just been fed salt herrings are licking their dry lips with bitter tongues. They dream of the happiness of stretching out one’s legs and of the relief one feels after going to the toilet. In Orotukan the earth thaws only in summer and only to the depth of three feet—and only then can they bury the bones of those who died during the winter. And you have the right to arrange your own life under the blue sky and the hot sun, to get a drink of water, to stretch, to travel wherever you like without a convoy. So what’s this about unwiped feet? And what’s this about a mother-in-law? What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusory—property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life—don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart—and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how your are imprinted in their memory!

But the convoy guards stroke the black handles of the pistols in their pockets. And we sit there, three in a row, sober fellows, quiet friends.
The Gulag Archipelago I,Alexander Solzhenitsyn

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When people asked him how he spent his time, he replied that he was a “respirateur,” a breather…
Reported of Marcel Duchamp

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Don Quixote coming to the squire, whispered in his ear, “Heark ye, Sancho; since you would have us believe what you say,touching the things you saw in heaven, I desire the like credit from you, with regard to those things I saw in the cave of Montesinos. That’s all.”
Don Quixote, Cervantes

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I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours.
Talking WWIII Blues , Bob Dylan

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I am going to seek solitude and rustic peace in the one place in France where they exist, in a fourth-floor apartment overlooking the Champs-Elysées.
Stendahl, The Red and the Black

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I have often said that the chief cause of man’s unhappiness is his being unable to sit quietly in his room.
Pascal, Pensées

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The three requirements for happiness are selfishness, stupidity, and good health, but without stupidity, the others are useless.
Flaubert

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The most honorable thing we can say of a man is that he does not understand the court; there is scarcely a virtue we do not imply when saying this.
La Bruyère

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Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke — look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce, my boys!
Melville, Moby Dick

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Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I …Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?
Melville, Moby Dick

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The more we consider Bouvard and Pecuchet, the less the novel can be thought of as nothing but an attack on the culture of the nineteenth century.  Bourgeois democracy merely affords the setting for a situation in which it becomes possible to reject culture itself.  The novel does nothing less than that:  it rejects culture.  The human mind experiences the massed accumulation of its own works…and arrives at the  understanding …that all are weariness and vanity, that the whole vast superstructure of human thought and creation is alien from the human person.
Lionel Trilling from Introduction to Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet

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The artist is not a special kind of man; each man is a special kind of artist.
Jean Gimpel from Meister Eckhart

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Cultured people are merely the glittering scum which floats upon the deep river of production.
Winston Churchill

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The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world.  Goods must be produced, but they need not be distributed.
The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein
1984, George Orwell

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But then, only those who decline to scramble up the career  ladder are interesting as human beings.  Nothing is more boring than a man with a career.
The Gulag Archipelago III

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All the problems which tease and tormet men who have been free we solve with a single click of the tongue…”Things have been worse!”
The Gulag Archipelago III

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The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together.  There are two ways to escape suffering it.  The first is easy for many:  accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it.  The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension:  seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
Italo Calvino. Invisible Cities

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I can no longer sit back and allow terrorist infiltration, terrorist indoctrination, terrorist perversion and the international terrorist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids-
General Jack D. Ripper

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Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, but where we are is Hell,
And where Hell is, there shall we ever be.
And to be short, when all the world dissolves,
And every creature shall be purified,
All places shall be Hell that is not Heaven
Marlowe, Dr. Faustus

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…instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.
Thoreau, Walden

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Wheel of Fortuna

September 11, 2008

In college, I read Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy to gain some general intellectual background to Chaucer and medieval literature.  I liked it quite a lot then, and lately, it seems to be cropping up here and there (including as the philosophical inspiration to the protaganist of that entertaining and vastly overrated work, The Confederacy of Dunces) so once again I am reading the last work of that unfortunate man.  It’s as good as I remember it!

I really like the way the piece gets right to the heart of the matter.  He’s sitting in prison, unjustly accused, wailing “Woe is me!” when a colossal figure of Ms. Philosophia comes for a visit.  She wastes no time in pointing out to him that if he were really a philosophical chap, he would realize that if he is the victim of evil men, it’s only because he permits himself to be!

Mr. B is generally regarded as one of the most influential writers of the Middle Ages.  That is, he was the “last of the Romans, and the first of the Scholastics,” living in the late 5th Century A.D. under the Ostrogoth successors to the Latin Roman Emperors.  His works were among the most quoted, copied, and taught in the medieval period. He was from an illustrious family, had a brilliant career, a highborn wife, two successful sons, but he ended up being tortured to death in prison by a Barbarian king whom he had pissed off for some reason.  As the late, great Kurt Vonnegut would have put it, “So it goes…

And that, to be perfectly serious, is part of the message of the The Consolation.  The Wheel of Fortune, so beloved by TV viewers, got its send off into the Middle Ages with Boethius’ work.  I am up, up UP! shouts the king on top…while on the other side the deposed ruler laments, I am down Down, DOWN!  ‘Round and round, and nobody knows where it will stop – it never stops.

As an interpreter and popularizer of Platonic thinking, Boethius, a Christian, elaborated the explanation of how evil can exist in a world ruled by an all powerful God that was begun by Augustine.  This is called theodicy, not to be confused with idiocy. Of course, it turns out that evil doesn’t really exist.

Mr. B. had another argument that I thought was in The Consolation, but which I read in his book on music, it turns out.  All of you high-brow critics will love it:

Boethius points out that there are three types of people who concern themselves with music: theorists, composers, and performers. Of these, the performers are excluded from true musical understanding, … “They … act as slaves, without reasoning or thinking”. The composers, or poets, “compose more with their natural instinct than through the exercise of thought or reason”, but the theorist, on the other hand, “is entirely devoted to reason and thought…”

Boethius draws the conclusion that the theorist is the highest of the three, alone worthy of the name “musician…”

from Boethius’ Three Musicisans

Those who can do, those who cannot become critics…