Surreality Check

Past Headquotes

June 2000

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

  1. Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death .…
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.…
  3. Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are .…
  4. Political purpose—using the word "political" in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people's idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is completely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

——George Orwell, "Why I Write" (1946) (emphasis added)

July 2000

It is finished. An old man, bent and nearly broken by the horrors of his own times and those which burdened his writing, looks with dubious satisfaction upon the mountain of teeming paper on which he has labored all these years, overflowing with memories past and events present. The task has been mastered—one for which I was not suited, not born, but called by love, and loyalty, and the duty of a witness. I have done what these can accomplish; I have devoted all my industry to the task; I must be content.

——Thomas Mann, Doktor Faustus (1947) (trans. JS)

August 2000

If your world is like that of our distant ancestors, you might imagine that you've stumbled upon an unknown continent in one of the oceans: a new Atlantis with fantastic cities, people flying without wings or aeros, rocks lifted at a glance; in short, things that would never occur to you except in hallucinations. This was yesterday for me—because, as I have already told you, not one of us has ventured beyond the Wall since the 200 Years' War.

I understand. It is my duty to you, my unknown friend, to tell you in even greater detail about the strange world that revealed itself to me yesterday. But I cannot yet do so. I see and hear a torrent of the new, of new events, and I cannot grasp them all—I lift the hem of my unif, I hold out my hands, yet the stream flows past leaving only droplets to fall on these pages.

——Evgenii Zamiatin, We (1920–27) (trans. JS)

September 2000

… She had always borne an excellent character. She had even (an infallible mark of good reputation) been picked out to work in Pornosec, the subsection of the Fiction Department which turned out cheap pornography for distribution among the proles. It was nicknamed Muck House by the people who worked for it, she remarked. There she had remained for a year, helping to produce booklets in sealed packets with titles like Spanking Stories or On Night in a Girls' School, to be bought furtively by proletarian youths who were under the impression that they were buying something illegal.

"What are these books like?" said Winston curiously.

"Oh, ghastly rubbish. They're boring, really. They only have six plots, but they swap them round a bit. Of course I was only on the kaleidoscopes. I was never in the Rewrite Squad. I'm not literary, dear—not even enough for that."

——George Orwell, 1984: A Novel (1949)

October 2000

But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if that were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. To exchange all the goodness and grace of every life in Omelas for that single, small improvement: to throw away happiness of thousands for the chance of the happiness of one: that would be to let guilt within the walls indeed.

——Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" (1973)

November 2000

He was about to ask D.W. what time the burn was scheduled for when the laughter from Anne and George's room got noticeable and he turned to say, "What you suppose they're up to?" He meant it as an innocent question but Emilio cracked up and D.W. put his hands over his face. Alan Pace was clearly trying very hard not to notice anything, but Marc was laughing and Sofia's shoulders were shaking, although Jimmy couldn't see her face because she'd gone off to a corner of the galley.

"What—?" He started to ask again, but now Anne was audibly convulsed and then George's voice rang out from their cabin. "Well, sports fans, we're talking a major disappointment here in Fantasy Land."

That set D.W. off, but Alan was still quite composed and remarked, "Ah, I expect this is a difficulty somehow attributable to Newton's Third Law," which Jimmy, in his morning fog, had to think about for a moment before he said vaguely, "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction…" And then it began to dawn on him.

"Ol' George is probably having a little trouble gettin' a purchase," D.W. commented, which made even Alan Pace laugh. But Marc Robichaux pushed off purposefully toward a storage cabinet and floated back moments later, smiling seraphically, a middle-aged Angel Gabriel holding a two-inch-wide roll of silver adhesive tape. This he delivered by cracking open the door to Anne and George's room and holding it inside one-handed, the way one might deliver toilet paper to a discommoded guest. Meanwhile, Karl Malden's sonorous TV voice, marred by a slight Spanish accent, called out to them, "Duct tape! Don't leave home without it."

Anne shrieked with laughter, but George yelled, "I don't suppose we could get a little gravity around here?" and D.W. hollered back, "Nope. All we got is levity."

——Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (1996)

December 2000

It was a very great honor, but Dira began to feel the loneliness even as they told him that they would leave. Yet he accepted. Wondering why they had selected him, of all their people. There were reasons, there were always reasons, but he could not ask. And so he accepted the honor, with all its attendant sadness, and remained behind when they left.
    The limits of his caretakership were harsh, for they ensured that he could not defend himself against whatever slurs or legends would be spread, nor could he take action unless it became clear the trust was being breached by the other—who now held possession. And he had no threat save the Deathbird. A final threat that could be used only when final measures were needed: and therefore too late.

——Harlan Ellison, "The Deathbird" (1973)

January 2001

A shape, red with white wings around the face, a shape like mine, a nondescript woman in red carrying a basket, comes along the brick sidewalk towards me. She reaches me and we peer at each other's faces, looking down the white tunnels of cloth that enclose us. She is the right one.

"Blessed be the fruit," she says to me, the accepted greeting among us.

"May the Lord open," I answer, the accepted response. We turn and walk together past the large houses, towards the central part of town. We aren't allowed to go there except in twos. This is supposed to be for our protection, though the notion is absurd: we are well protected already. The truth is that she is my spy, as I am hers. If either of us slips through the net because of something that happens on one of our daily walks, the other will be accountable.

This woman has been my partner for two weeks. I don't know what happened to the one before. On a certain day she simply wasn't there anymore, and this one was there in her place. It isn't the sort of thing you ask questions about, because the answers are not usually answers you want to know. Anyway there wouldn't be an answer.

——Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (1985)

February 2001

Hanna was divided between intellect and emotion on the one hand, arguing that D.H. Lawrence was impotent with a youth in eye shadow who insisted that at heart he was a "raving queen"; on the other, she was trying to protect Stanley from Agnes Deigh, where he sat on the arm of her chair with the white fingertips dug into his knee….

The critic in the green wool shirt was stooped over the poet, saying—These snotty kids who come out of college and think they can write novels.

Mr. Freddle was busy inscribing the fly leaf of a book.

——William Gaddis, The Recognitions (1952)

I need a wind. A good strong wind. The air is stagnant. The current must be pounding along at a fair rate. Yes, but I can't feel it. Where's my compass? That went days ago, don't you remember? I need a wind, a good strong winds. I'll whistle for one. I would whistle for one if I had paid the piper. A wind from the East, hard on to my back, yes. Perhaps I am still too near the shore? After 70 days at sea, too near the shore? But who knows, I might have drifted back again inshore. Oh no, no, I'll try rowing. The oars are gone, don't you remember, they went days ago. No, you must be nearer landfall than you think…. I could catch a horse, perhaps and ride it, a sea horse, no horse of sand, and my time is man-time and it is God for deserts. Some ride dolphins. Plenty have testified. I may leave my sinking rafting clean to the neck of a sea horse, all the way to Jamaica and poor Charlie's Nancy, or, if the current swings me South at last, to the Coast where the white bird is waiting.

——Dorris Lessing, Briefing for a Descent Into Hell (1971)

March 2001

After all, I am not so violently bent upon my own opinion, as to reject any offer, proposed by wise men, which shall be found equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual. But before something of that kind shall be advanced in contradiction to my scheme, and offering a better, I desire the author or authors will be pleased maturely to consider two points. First, As things now stand, how they will be able to find food and raiment for a hundred thousand useless mouths and backs. And secondly, There being a round million of creatures in humane figure throughout this kingdom, whose whole subsistence put into a common stock, would leave them in debt two million of pounds sterling, adding those who are beggars by profession, to the bulk of farmers, cottagers and labourers, with their wives and children, who are beggars in effect; I desire those politicians who dislike my overture, and may perhaps be so bold to attempt an answer, that they will first ask the parents of these mortals, whether they would not at this day think it a great happiness to have been sold for food at a year old, in the manner I prescribe, and thereby have avoided such a perpetual scene of misfortunes, as they have since gone through, by the oppression of landlords, the impossibility of paying rent without money or trade, the want of common sustenance, with neither house nor cloaths to cover them from the inclemencies of the weather, and the most inevitable prospect of intailing the like, or greater miseries, upon their breed for ever.

——Jonathan Swift, "A modest proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick" (1729)

April 2001

The curate could not but laugh at her simplicity as he directed the barber to hand him the volumes one by one so that he might see what their subject matter was, since it was possible that there were some that did not deserve a punishment by fire.

"No," said the niece, "you must not pardon any of them, for they are all to blame. It would be better to toss them out the window into the courtyard, make a heap of them, and then set fire to it; or else you can take them how to the stable yard and make a bonfire there where the smoke will not annoy anyone."

The housekeeper said the same thing, both of them being very anxious to witness the death of these innocents, but the curate would not hear of this until he had read the titles. The first that Master Nicholas handed him was The Four Books of Amadis of Gaul.

"There seems to be some doubt about this one," he said, "for according to what I've heard, it was the first romance of chivalry to be printed in Spain and is the very beginning and origin of all the others; but for that very reason I think that we should condemn it to the flames without any mercy whatsoever as the work that supplied the dogmas for so vile a sect."

"No, my dear sir," said the barber, "for I've heard that it is better than all the other books of this sort of that have been composed, and inasmuch as it is unique of its kind, it ought to be pardoned."

"True enough," said curate, "and for that reason we will spare its life for the present. Let us see the one next to it."

"It is the Exploits of Esplandián, legitimate son of Amadis of Gaul."

"Well, I must say," the curate replied, "that the father's merits are not to be set down to the credit of his offspring. Take it, Mistress Housekeeper; open that window and throw it out into the stable yard; it will make a beginning for that bonfire of ours."

——Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, The Ingenious Gentleman, Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, trans. Putnam 1949)

May-June 2001

Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, their actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great storytellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.

What the commodifiers of fantasy count on and exploit is the insuperable imagination of the reader, child or adult, which gives even these dead things life—of a sort, for a while.

Imagination like all living things lives now, and it lives with, from, on true change. Like all we do and have, it can be coopted and degraded; but it survives commercial and didactic exploitation. The land outlasts the empires.

——Ursula K. Le Guin, Forword, Tales From Earthsea (2001)

July 2001

Essentially, §201(c) adjusts a publisher’ s copyright in its collective work to accommodate a freelancer's copyright in her contribution. If there is demand for a freelance article standing alone or in a new collection, the Copyright Act allows the freelancer to benefit from that demand; after authorizing initial publication, the freelancer may also sell the article to others. It would scarcely "preserve the author's copyright in a contribution" as contemplated by Congress if a newspaper or magazine publisher were permitted to reproduce or distribute copies of the author’s contribution in isolation or within new collective works.6

6. … More to the point, even if the dissent is correct that some authors, in the long run, are helped, not hurt, by Database reproductions, the fact remains that the Authors who brought the case now before us have asserted their rights under § 201(c). We may not invoke our conception of their interests to diminish those rights.

Tasini v. New York Times, Inc., et al.,
____ U.S. ____ (2001) (Ginsburg, J.) (citations omitted)

August-October 2001

These books may look like simple instruction, and they are in a way, but they really belong in the "magic" section of the bookstore, next to "grand illusions" and "let's pretend." Or in the further reaches of self-help. Evidently there exists a widespread belief that the good ol' Yankee can-do spirit—the kind that helps you to learn how to puff a soufflé or lay a garden path—extends to an imaginative realm like novel-writing. But it hardly needs saying: No mere manual can break the creative process down to retraceable steps and isolated parts for convenient home assembly.

Then again, maybe all that's missing here is a better mousetrap. Maybe the problem isn't with "how to" so much as with "how to what?" That is, instead of jumping in with "How to Write a Book," maybe we should begin with "How to Write a Book About How to Write a Book" or "Is There a Book About a Book Inside You?" Only then would we move on to "A Writer's Guide to Guiding Writers" and finally, "Making It BIG in the How-to-Write Business."

——Diana West, "How-To Hackdom: The Dubious Art of Writing Books About Writing Books," Wall Street Journal (27 Jul 2001)

November 2001

"The only way you'll cross the lake and go to the land of the dead," he said, and he was leaning up on his elbow, pointing a skinny finger at Lyra, "is with your own deaths. You must call up your own deaths. I have heard of people like you, who keep their deaths at bay. You don't like them, and out of courtesy they stay out of sight. But they're not far off. Whenever you turn your heads, your deaths dodge behind you. Wherever you look, they hide. They can hide in a teacup. Or in a dewdrop. Or in a breath of wind. Not like me and old Magda here," he said, and he pinched her withered cheek, and she pushed his hand away. "We live together in kindness and friendship. That's the answer, that's it, that's what you've got to do, say welcome, make friends, be kind, invite your deaths to come close to you, and see what you can get them to agree to."

——Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass (2000)

December 2001

Can any one set of tricks or techniques vault you onto the best-seller lists? Not really. Far too many other people are involved in such a massive publishing effort: your agent, your editor, your publicist, your bookstore friends and many others. Still… you yourself will do the primary work of making a breakout happen at your word processor (or with your quill and parchement, or whatever works for you).

*  *  *

You will also find in this volume no single formula for the breakout novel. A truly big book is a perfect blend of inspired premise, larger-than-life characters, high-stakes story, deeply felt themes, vivid setting and much more. It is a kind of literary gestalt, a welling up of inspired material, enriched by close observation, or at least deatailed research. It flows together in ways that seem destined to be.

Formulas also achieve predictable effects. I am not interested in punching out cooke-cutter best-sellers, so-called "blockbuster novels." Rather, it is my mission to help every author elevate his own unique styles of storytelling to its highest form. Indeed, I believe that adhering to best-seller "rules" is antithetical to breaking out. A true breakout is not an imitation but a breakthrough to a more profound individual expression. It demands that an author reach deep inside to find what is truthful, original, important and inspiring in his own world view.

It requires that the author be true to his own "voice."

——Don Maass, introduction to Writing the Breakout Novel (2001)

January-February 2002

A free society is, inevitably, a contentious society, full of disputes and disagreements, all loudly and eagerly expressed. In these quarrels people are quick to distinguish themselves from one another, to take sides, identify an "us" and "them" who go up against one another as though social discourse were an athletic contest and our team colors more important to us even than civility.

*  *  *

From the beginning, Americans have been troubled by the extent to which our differences threaten our ability to come together in an association larger than our special interests and make it impossible for us truly to be a people. The founders emphasized our abstract commitment to this larger sense of connection in the opening lines of the Constitution, employing such phrases as "we the people" and "a more perfect union," but these were more expressions of aspiration than of fact, more declarations of hope than of confidence. The questions of who we are and what holds us together—given the pride with which we assert our distinctions and the vehemence with which we denounce those with whom we disagree (not to mention a painful history of exclusion and prejudice)—are as perplexing today as ever and the need for answers more urgent.

When terrorists turned our airplanes into bombs, they did not check the passenger lists to distinguish male from female, young from old, pious from impious, liberal from conservative. When they murdered those passengers and the occupants of the buildings in which they exploded their hatred for America, they did not separate Christians from Muslims, rich from poor, recent immigrants from Daughters of the American Revolution. No exemptions were handed out to Native Americans or those whose last names looked Asian or Hispanic, no special consideration given to whites or blacks, no interest shown in who belonged to the NRA or the ACLU, or to who was gay or heterosexual. In the rubble piled high in Manhattan and Washington, DC, and rural Pennsylvania, only singularity matters.

——H. Wayne Fields, "America's War on Terrorism"
first appeared in St. Louis Post-Dispatch (2001)

March 2002

It was in retrospect a distressing, but perhaps unsurprising fact that relatively few people and no governments had actually engaged in [WWII] because they saw it as a struggle against Nazi wickedness, even if many of them were heartened as it proceeded by a growing sense that the conflict had a moral dimension. Propaganda contributed to this, even before the full evil of Nazism [sic] was revealed. Even while England was the only nation in Europe still on her feet and fighting for her survival, a democratic society had sought to see in the struggle positive ends which went beyond survival. Hopes of social and economic reconstruction and a new world of co-operation between democratic great powers were embodied in the Atlantic Charter and new international organizations already in being in 1945. These were entities significantly transcending European history in their importance. They were encouraged by goodwill towards allies, a sense of comradeship in an unequivocally righteous cause, and a tragic blurring of differences of interest and social ideals which were only too quickly to re-remerge. Much wartime rhetoric was to boomerang badly with the coming of peace; disillusionment began soon to follow inspection of the world after the guns were silent. Yet for all this, the war of 1939–45 in Europe had turned out in the end to be a moral struggle in a way, perhaps, in which no other has ever been. Too much would be heard in due course of the regrettable consequences of Allied victory; it should never be forgotten that it crushed the worst challenge to liberal civilization which has ever arisen, even if that challenge was, somehow, also the monstrous creation of that civilization.

——J.M. Roberts, A History of Europe (1996)

April-June 2002

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

Infant's flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolifick dyet, there are more children born in Roman Catholick countries about nine months after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us.

I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, labourers, and four-fifths of the farmers) to be about two shillings per annum, rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he hath only some particular friend, or his own family to dine with him. Thus the squire will learn to be a good landlord, and grow popular among his tenants, the mother will have eight shillings neat profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child.

——Jonathan Swift, "A Modest Proposal for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick" (1729)

July-September 2002

"We are the dead," he said.

"We are the dead," echoed Julia dutifully.

"You are the dead," said an iron voice behind them.

They sprang apart. Winston's entrails seemed to have turned into ice. He could see the white all round the irises of Julia's eyes. Her face had turned a milky yellow. The smear of rouge that was still on each cheekbone stood out sharply, almost as though unconnected with the skin beneath.

"You are the dead," repeated the iron voice.

"It was behind the picture," breathed Julia.

"It was behind the picture," said the voice. "Remain exactly where you are. Make no movement until you are ordered."

* * *

There was another, lighter step in the passage. Mr. Charrington came into the room. The demeanor of the black-uniformed men suddenly became more subdued. Something had also changed in Mr. Charrington's appearance. His eye fell on the fragments of the glass paperweights.

"Pick up those pieces," he said sharply.

A man stooped to obey. The cockney accent had disappeared; Winston suddenly realized whose voice it was that he had heard a few moments ago on the telescreen…. It occurred to Winston that for the first time in his life he was looking, with knowledge, at a member of the Thought Police.

——George Orwell (Eric Blair), Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel (1949)

October-November 2002

Wars of one kind or another have been a regular feature of twentieth-century Middle Eastern life. They have included not only the century’s two world wars but also the briefer periods of intense fighting among Israel, the Palestinians, and their Arab neighbors; a variety of civil wars with outside participation like those in Yemen, Sudan, Oman and Lebanon; and the long, drawn-out war between Iraq and Iran during the 1980s. All this was enough… to create a situation in which not just the wars themselves but also the cumulative effects of the memory of past wars and the ever present threat of new ones became important factors in their own right, influencing policy and the distribution of national resources in ways that had profound effects on political institutions, economic and social arrangements, and the general exercise of power.

——Roger Owen, "The Cumulative Impact of Middle Eastern Wars," in ed. Stephen Heydemann, War, Institutions, and Social Change in the Middle East (2000)

December 2002

John Cade: I fear neither sword nor fire.

Smith the Weaver aside: He need not fear the sword; for his coat is of proof.

Dick the Butcher aside: But methinks he should stand in fear of fire, being burnt i' the hand for stealing of sheep.

Cade: Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows reformation. There shall be in England seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped pot; shall have ten hoops and I will make it felony to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to grass: and when I am king, as king I will be—

ALL: God save your majesty!

Cade: I thank you, good people: there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.

Dick: The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

Cade: Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled o'er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings: but I say, 'tis the bee's wax; for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since. How now! who's there?

Enter some, bringing forward the Clerk of Chatham

Smith: The clerk of Chatham: he can write and read and cast accompt.

Cade: O monstrous!

Smith: We took him setting of boys' copies.

Cade: Here's a villain!

Smith: Has a book in his pocket with red letters in't.

Cade: Nay, then, he is a conjurer.

Dick: Nay, he can make obligations, and write court-hand.

Cade: I am sorry for't: the man is a proper man, of mine honour; unless I find him guilty, he shall not die.

——William Shakespeare, 2 Henry VI, Act IV, scene ii

January 2003

Socrates The instrument is the same, but about the excellence or badness of it the maker will only attain to a correct belief; and this he will gain from him who knows, by talking to him and being compelled to hear what he has to say, whereas the user will have knowledge?

Glaucon True.

Socrates But will the imitator have either? Will he know from use whether or no his drawing is correct or beautiful? or will he have right opinion from being compelled to associate with another who knows and gives him instructions about what he should draw?

Glaucon Neither.

Socrates Then he will no more have true opinion than he will have knowledge about the goodness or badness of his imitations?

Glaucon I suppose not.

Socrates The imitative artist will be in a brilliant state of intelligence about his own creations?

Glaucon Nay, very much the reverse.

Socrates And still he will go on imitating without knowing what makes a thing good or bad, and may be expected therefore to imitate only that which appears to be good to the ignorant multitude?

Glaucon Just so.

Socrates Thus far then we are pretty well agreed that the imitator has no knowledge worth mentioning of what he imitates. Imitation is only a kind of play or sport, and the tragic poets, whether they write in Iambic or in Heroic verse, are imitators in the highest degree?

Glaucon Very true.

Socrates And now tell me, I conjure you, has not imitation been shown by us to be concerned with that which is thrice removed from the truth?

——Plato, The Republic (trans. Jowett)

February 2003

The first incident in which this general political sympathy announced itself was destructive and fearful indeed: a devastating war of thirty years, which, from the center of Bohemia to the mouth of the Scheldt, and from the River Po to the Baltic coast, devastated entire countries, destroyed harvests, and reduced towns and villages to ashes; which opened a grave for many thousand combatants; which for half a century smothered the nascent breath of civilization in Germany, and replaced growing tolerance with pure barbarism and wildness. Yet out of this fearful war Europe came forth free and independent. Europe learned to recognize itself as a community of nations; this growing sense of community between states, which originated in the Thirty Years' War, may in itself be sufficient to reconcile the philosopher to its horrors. The hand of industry has gradually erased the traces of its ravages, while its beneficent influence remains; this general sympathy among the states of Europe, which grew out of the troubles in Bohemia, is our guarantee for the continuance of the peace that resulted from the War. As the sparks of destruction found their way from Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria to kindle Germany, France, and eventually half of Europe, so also will the torch of civilization make a path for itself from the greater sense of Europe to enlighten the tinder.

——Friedrich Schiller, Geschichte des Dreissigjahres-Krieg (History of the Thirty Years' War) (trans. JS)

March 2003

By this time the spider was adventured out, when, beholding the chasms, the ruins, and dilapidations of his fortress, he was very near at his wit's end; he stormed and swore like a madman, and swelled till he was ready to burst. At length, casting his eye upon the bee, and wisely gathering causes from events (for they know each other by sight), "A plague split you," said he; "is it you, with a vengeance, that have made this litter here; could not you look before you, and be d-d? Do you think I have nothing else to do (in the devil's name) but to mend and repair after you?" "Good words, friend," said the bee, having now pruned himself, and being disposed to droll; "I'll give you my hand and word to come near your kennel no more; I was never in such a confounded pickle since I was born." "Sirrah," replied the spider, "if it were not for breaking an old custom in our family, never to stir abroad against an enemy, I should come and teach you better manners." "I pray have patience," said the bee, "or you'll spend your substance, and, for aught I see, you may stand in need of it all, towards the repair of your house." "Rogue, rogue," replied the spider, "yet methinks you should have more respect to a person whom all the world allows to be so much your betters." "By my troth," said the bee, "the comparison will amount to a very good jest, and you will do me a favour to let me know the reasons that all the world is pleased to use in so hopeful a dispute." At this the spider, having swelled himself into the size and posture of a disputant, began his argument in the true spirit of controversy, with resolution to be heartily scurrilous and angry, to urge on his own reasons without the least regard to the answers or objections of his opposite, and fully predetermined in his mind against all conviction.

——Jonathan Swift, "The Battle of the Books" (1706)

April 2003

KING HENRY V Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game's afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry "God for Harry, England, and Saint George!"

——William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act III, scene i

May 2003

Alonso Give us kind keepers, heavens! What were these?

Sebastian A living drollery. Now I will believe
That there are unicorns, that in Arabia
There is one tree, the phoenix' throne, one phoenix
At this hour reigning there.

Antonio I'll believe both;
And what does else want credit, come to me,
And I'll be sworn 'tis true: travellers ne'er did lie,
Though fools at home condemn 'em.

Gonzalo If in Naples
I should report this now, would they believe me?
If I should say, I saw such islanders—
For, certes, these are people of the island—
Who, though they are of monstrous shape, yet, note,
Their manners are more gentle-kind than of
Our human generation you shall find
Many, nay, almost any.

Prospero [Aside]        Honest lord,
Thou hast said well; for some of you there present
Are worse than devils.

Alonso        I cannot too much muse
Such shapes, such gesture and such sound, expressing,
Although they want the use of tongue, a kind
Of excellent dumb discourse.

——William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act III, scene iii

June 2003

In our age, the idea of intellectual liberty is under attack from two directions. On the one side are its theoretical enemies, the apologists of totalitarianism, and on the other its immediate, political enemies, monopoly and bureaucracy. Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than by active persecution. The sort of things that are working against him are the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly on radio and the films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books, making it necessary for nearly every writer to earn part of his living by hack work, the encroachment of official bodies like the MOI and the British Council, which help the writer to keep alive but also waste his time and dictate his opinions, and the continuous war atmosphere of the past ten years, whose distorting effects no one has been able to escape. Everything in our age conspires to turn the writer, and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official, working on themes handed to him from above and never telling what seems to him the whole of the truth. But in struggling against this fate he gets no help from his own side: that is, there is no large body of opinion which will assure him that he is in the right.

——George Orwell, "The Prevention of Literature" (1946)

July 2003

However, all of the books I have been speaking of are frankly "escape" literature. They form pleasant patches in one's memory, quiet corners where the mind can browse at odd moments, but they hardly pretend to have anything to do with real life. There is another kind of good bad book which is more seriously intended, and which tells us, I think, something about the nature of the novel and the reasons for its present decadence. During the last fifty years there has been a whole series of writers—some of them are still writing—whom it is quite impossible to call "good" by any strictly literary standard, but who are natural novelists and who seem to attain sincerity partly because they are not inhibited by good taste.

——George Orwell, "Good Bad Books" (1945)

August 2003

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions, and not a "party line." Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White Papers and the speeches of Under-Secretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, iron heel, blood-stained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.

——George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language" (1946)

September 2003

Undoubtedly, aspects of high culture lend themselves to such branding [as affected or pretentious], especially when access to them becomes restricted by cost to a privileged stratum of society, as with all but the worst seats at the opera; for wealth and taste are not automatic bedfellows, and some go to the opera not so much to see it as to be seen at it. But pretension aside, the very idea of people who enjoy Renaissance painting or classical music irritates those who place all consumption of high culture in the same basket, if not as the affectation of the conceited (the low-brow rightwing complaint, opposed to what it brands as Islington trendiness in such things as the championing of contemporary art and music) then as the recreation of the privileged (the anti-highbrow leftwing complaint, opposed to the spending of public money on the Royal Opera House instead of on grants to ethnic dance groups in deprived areas)—both of which in their different ways explain why questions of culture have a political edge.

——A.C. Grayling, "A Question of Discrimination,"
The Guardian (13 July 2003)

October 2003

In our time, science and technology cannot play an integrating role, precisely because of the infinite richness of knowledge and the speed of its evolution, which have led to specialization and its obscurities. But literature has been, and will continue to be, as long as it exists, one of the common denominators of human experience through which human beings may recognize themselves and converse with each other, no matter how different their professions, their life plans, their geographical and cultural locations, their personal circumstances. It has enabled individuals, in all the particularities of their lives, to transcend history: as readers of Cervantes, Shakespeare, Dante, and Tolstoy, we understand each other across space and time, and we feel ourselves to be members of the same species because, in the works that these writers created, we learn what we share as human beings, what remains common in all of us under the broad range of differences that separate us. Nothing better protects a human being against the stupidity of prejudice, racism, religious or political sectarianism, and exclusivist nationalism than this truth that invariably appears in great literature: that men and women of all nations and places are essentially equal, and that only injustice sows among them discrimination, fear, and exploitation.

——Mario Vargas Llosa, "Why Literature? The Premature Obituary of the Book," New Republic (14 May 2001)

November 2003

History, it turns out, can be the historical novelist's worst enemy. Some, adopting the policy that the best defense is a good offense, strike first, felling history with a body blow before it gets the chance to cause any real trouble. It would take a reader with a much higher hooey threshold than mine to get very far into Sena Jeter Naslund's Ahab's Wife, in which the titular heroine is born into an antebellum household in rural Kentucky equipped with a complete set of the racial, sexual and religious attitudes of a contemporary subscriber to The Utne Reader. The implication is that the past was full of right-thinking people—people just like ourselves if we happen to be late- 20th-century liberals of secular or slightly New Agey temperament—we just never hear about them.

When it comes to race and American history, this sanitizing approach has troubling implications; it erases the reality that even essentially good people can harbor profoundly wrong beliefs. The best historical novels attack that paradox head on. The dirt-poor white hero of Richard Slotkin's wonderful 2000 novel, Abe, uses the "N" word and bridles when he thinks he's being treated as somehow equivalent to a "Negro," but then readers are inclined to cut this fellow some slack: he's the young Abraham Lincoln. Besides, the purpose of "Abe" is to trace the gradual reconstruction of Lincoln's racial and moral thinking as he sloughs off the prejudices of his childhood; the process is long and complicated. In Brian Hall's I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company, published earlier this year, the primary white characters—the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark—are mired in sexual, familial and political confusions that combine with their mixed-up notions about American Indians and blacks to mark them distinctly as products of their time. And very rarely a writer dares to build a novel around a character who embraces the evils of her historical context. The toxic belle who narrates Valerie Martin's Property (also published this year) belies the convention that suffering ennobles the oppressed; she's so soured by her own crushing marriage that she can find solace only in tormenting her slaves.

——Laura Miller, "Authentically Offensive," New York Times Book Review (29 Jun 2003)

December 2003

Ayman Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's second-in-command, accuses Western forces of employing international institutions such as the United Nations, multinational corporations, and international news agencies as weapons in their "new crusade" to dominate the Islamic world. The new world order is "humiliating" to Muslims, he writes. Religious extremists see themselves as under attack by the global spread of post-Enlightenment Western values such as secular humanism and the focus on individual liberties. Zawahiri accuses the "new crusaders" of disseminating "immorality" under the slogans of progressiveness, liberty, and liberation. Many see America's way of life as motivated by evil, "Satan," "bad for the human being," and overly materialistic. "Globalization," a Hezbollah militant told me, "is just another word for McDonaldsization." They often reject feminism in favor of "family values," whether their families are in Oklahoma or Peshawar. They see themselves as defending sacred territory or protecting the rights of their coreligionists. They view people who practice other versions of their faith, or other faiths, as infidels or sinners. Because the true faith is purportedly in jeopardy, emergency conditions prevail, and the killing of innocents becomes, in their view, religiously and morally permissible. The point of religious terrorism is to purify the world of these corrupting influences.

——Jessica Stern, "Introduction," in Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (2003)

January 2004

There comes not seldom a crisis in the life of men, of nations, and of worlds, when the old forms seem ready to decay, and the old rules of action have lost their binding force. The evils of existing systems obscure the blessings that attend them; and, where reform is needed, the cry is raised for subversion. The cause of such phenomena is not far to seek. "It used to appear to me," writes Count Tolstoi, in a significant passage, "it used to appear to me that the small number of cultivated, rich and idle men, of whom I was one, composed the whole of humanity, and that the millions and millions of other men who had lived and are still living were not in reality men at all." It is this spirit- the spirit that sees the whole of humanity in the few, and throws into the background the millions and millions of other men-it is this spirit that has aroused the antagonism of reformers, and made the decay of the old forms, the rupture of the old restrictions, the ideal of them and of their followers. When wealth and poverty meet each other face to face, the one the master and the other the dependent, the one exalted and the other debased, it is perhaps hardly matter for surprise that the dependent and debased and powerless faction, in envy of their opponents' supremacy, should demand, not simple reform, but absolute community and equality of wealth. That cry for communism is no new one in the history of mankind. Thousands of years ago it was heard and acted on; and, in the lapse of centuries, its reverberations have but swelled in volume. Again and again, the altruist has arisen in politics, has bidden us share with others the product of our toil, and has proclaimed the communistic dogma as the panacea for our social ills. So today, amid the buried hopes and buried projects of the past, the doctrine of communism still lives in the minds of men. Under stress of misfortune, or in dread of tyranny, it is still preached in modern times as Plato preached it in the world of the Greeks.

——Benjamin Cardozo, "The Altruist in Politics" (1889)

February 2004

To the Magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De' Medici:
 
Those who strive to obtain the good graces of a prince are accustomed to come before him with such things as they hold most precious, or in which they see him take most delight; whence one often sees horses, arms, cloth of gold, precious stones, and similar ornaments presented to princes, worthy of their greatness.
 
Desiring therefore to present myself to your Magnificence with some testimony of my devotion towards you, I have not found among my possessions anything which I hold more dear than, or value so much as, the knowledge of the actions of great men, acquired by long experience in contemporary affairs, and a continual study of antiquity; which, having reflected upon it with great and prolonged diligence, I now send, digested into a little volume, to your Magnificence.

——Macchiavelli, The Prince (1513?) (trans. Marriott)

 

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