Notes, 2018

“Je voyais tout en noir avant les élections, je vois tout en noir depuis.” [I saw everything black before the elections, I see everything black since.] —Ernst Renan, quoted by Henry James in a letter to William James, 14 March 1876

I dreamed there were two new hobo symbols, one for “You already know everything I need for you to know” and one for “Felonies.”

“I sat without stirring and gazed, gazed with effort and perplexity, as though I saw all my life before me, as though scales had fallen from my eyes. Oh, what have I done! my lips involuntarily murmured in a bitter whisper.” —Turgenev, “A Tour in the Forest”

“Is treatment, particular bad treatment, ever given to a person?
“No. It is always meted out.
“Is anything else ever meted out?
“No. The only thing that is ever meted out is treatment.” —Myles na Gopaleen, The Best of Myles

“I heard Émile Zola characterize his [Droz’s] manner sometime since as merde à la vanille [vanilla shit].” —Henry James, reporting Zola’s diss of Gustave Droz in a letter to Thomas Sergeant Perry, 2 May 1876

What could Bitcoin possibly be good for other than money laundering and tax evasion? There’s an op-ed in the NYT today that maintains that it will help the poor with their banking and help the Federal Reserve manage the money supply. Surely these are the last things on earth that it would ever do—the things that it is least likely ever to do even accidentally. Governments refuse to allow gift cards that are dischargeable in multiple currencies, so it is inconceivable that they will not eventually be obliged to criminalize cryptocurrencies.

“To fear being ridiculous—is not to love truth.” —Turgenev, “A Correspondence”

equipollent (adj.): possessing equal power, identical in meaning

The two narratives are not equipollent.

—Gareth Dale, Karl Polanyi: The Limits of the Market

“It appears that my stuff has been over the heads of the readers. Imagine their stature!” —Henry James to Arthur George Sedgwick, 29 September 1876

“I believe fully, in spite of sneers, in interpreting the French Revolution by anecdotes, though not every diner out can do it.” —Emerson, journal, August 1849

“Eizenstat famously rebuked [Alfred Kahn] for publicly suggesting that rising inflation could result in a ‘very serious depression.’ Kahn responded by continuing to issue warnings of inflation-induced depression, but with the word ‘depression’ replaced with ‘banana.'” —Stephanie Mudge, Leftism Reinvented

At first depression seems to make one’s vision of the world sharpen. After all, narrowing the aperture for light increases the depth of field.

punnet (n.): small, light basket for strawberries, mushrooms, etc.

But there is a much more overwhelming sense of the strange beauty of tiny moments, such as [Oliver] Sacks’s response when Hayes dropped a punnet of cherry tomatoes on the kitchen floor (“How pretty! Do it again!”).

—Alex Clark, reviewing Bill Hayes’s Insomniac City in the TLS, 16 March 2018

semibreve: a whole note (under this terminology, a half-note is a minim, a quarter note is a crotchet, and an eighth note is a quaver)

The vaults and arches seem really to swing above you in great semibreves of rhythm.

—A. S. G. Butler, Recording Ruin

rani (n.): a Hindu queen, a rajah’s wife or widow

She had been there, unrememberingly, before, when she was small enough to ride in a backpack, little ranee on a jogging elephant, her view of the paintings relieved by the back of her father’s neck.

—Alan Hollinghurst, The Sparsholt Affair

“I don’t want to do so difficult a thing as dying without any chance of applause after having done it.” —Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, quoted in Edna Longley, ed., Annotated Collected Poems

“The high, thin nose was a little lonely, a little sad, but the bud of her lips opened and closed smoothly, like a beautiful little circle of leeches.” —Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country, trans. E. G. Seidensticker

shaw (n.): a thicket; the strip of trees or bushes forming the border of a field

. . . a law
Which was of old when one, like me, dreamed how
A thousand years might dust lie on his brow
Yet thus would birds do between hedge and shaw.

—Edward Thomas, “February Afternoon”

stook (n.): a shock; a group of twelve sheaves placed upright to support each other as the grain dries and ripens

The wheat, tawny with ripeness, had been cut and stood in tented stooks about the fields.

—Iris Murdoch, The Bell

“You make me want to bound about you and about the idea of you like an excited dog.” —Iris Murdoch to Michael Oakeshott, 4 November 1958

“One more step, and he would bid the dying gladiator be comforted by the stanzas of Childe Harold.” —Edward Thomas, critiquing the aestheticized “spectatorial attitude” of Walter Pater, quoted in Edna Longley, ed., Annotated Collected Poems

cagoule (n.): a thin waterproof hoodie

Both were swaddled in layers of fat, shiny nylon—what Alan now thought of as engorged cagoules.

—James Wood, Upstate

Believing in the Kool-Aid does not make it a good idea to drink it.

“Compared with a true artist’s conscience, Tamerlane is tenderhearted.” —Walter de la Mare, foreword to Edward Thomas’s Collected Poems (1920)

Butterflies must sometimes wish they could go back to being caterpillars.

thrawn (adj.): perverse, contrary, cross-grained, ill-tempered

He had some bread and cheese in his pocket, and this he began furtively to toss to the dogs, singling out for his favors those that seemed most thrawn in appearance.

—Gavin Maxwell, The Rocks Remain

“Inside the hall, the faces of the students and the lecturer were equally indistinct, which made everything somehow mystical, like eating a bean jam bun in the dark.” —Natsume Soseki, Sanshiro

What does it say about me that when I play fetch with the dog indoors, instead of saying, “Fetch,” I say, “Bring me the head of John the Baptist.”

Philosophy is a representation in language of what it is like and what it means to be in the world. Therefore it will always be impossible finally to distinguish it from literature and it will never be finished.

daedal (adj.): inventive, ingenious; rich, variously adorned; complex

. . . all the living things
that dwell within the daedal earth.

—Shelley, “Mont Blanc”

“And my relatives, moreover, were beginning to feel that this oldness in him was abnormal, excessive, shameful, and the sort of thing bachelors deserve, as do all those of whom it seems that the great day that has no day after is longer than it is for others because for them it’s empty, the moments in it adding up, from morning onward, without ever having to be divided later with children.” —Proust, Du côté de chez Swann

Listening to Nina Simone, I realize that I miss hearing people ask God to damn something.

How far away is Joan Didion from the character in Play It as It Lays who talks about “third-string faggots”?

Oh, ’tis a joy divine on summer days
When not a breeze is stirring, not a cloud,
To sit within some solitary wood,
Far in some lonely wood, and hear no sound
Which the heart does not make, or else so fit
To its own temper that in external things
No longer seem internal difference.
All melts away, and things that are without
Live in our minds as in their native home.

—Wordsworth, fragment 3 from the Christabel notebook

solatium (n.): a sum of money given to make up for loss, inconvenience, or injured feelings

The master in Osaka (Okubata’s older brother) had given him a modest solatium upon his being disinherited, and he had been eating into his capital ever since.

—Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters

To revisit the past is to say good-bye to it again, which is unbearable.

“Is it possible that any editor should endure any inconvenience without meditating an article?” —Trollope, Phineas Redux

A friend’s counsel to Phineas Finn, after he is slimed by Quintus Slide, the 19th-century version of an internet troll: “I don’t see what you can do. You have encountered a chimney sweeper, and of course you get some of the soot.”

Humans vs. AI: Our disadvantage is that we’re all essentially programmed the same, but we’re building many different AIs. There’s only one kind of “us” to be figured out, but every day someone puts together a new kind of “them.”

Arthur Russell sings in the key of heterosexuality with the same acceptance of generic constraint that ABBA sings in the language of English. One’s appreciation is in both cases heightened by the awareness that it isn’t natural.

“In a world where we are all transparent—unable to deceive each other—it might be rational to deceive ourselves about rationality.” —Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons

“She began crying and laughing. This conflict of tears and laughter always reminds me of the flickering and spluttering of a brightly burning candle when one sprinkles it with water.” —Chekhov, “The Privy Councillor”

“It feels ominous to drive through West Texas with a clean windshield. Road trips always used to be accompanied by the incessant splatter of death. . . . The absence of insects seems to be part of a general diminution of life.” —Lawrence Wright, God Save Texas

clout (adj.): cloth, rag

But whenever did a pan or a clout—when kept clean and tidy—refuse to do its duty, or rebel against its lady?”

—T. F. Powys, Unclay

Music continued for a decade or two after it ended, but unless you already knew the provenance of one of these later songs, you couldn’t figure out when it had been recorded. You couldn’t even write an algorithm that could figure it out. The songs were already outside of music’s history.

After one has learned to manage the isolation and poverty, there is still the challenge of writing itself.

slane, or slean (adj.): a long-handled spade, with a wing or two wings on the blade, used for cutting peat

The men-folk were going to the turf-bogs with their sleans on their shoulders.

—Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool

barm (vi.): mix with yeast or leaven; rise in froth or fermentation

The porter was beginning to barm in bellies.

—Kavanagh, Green Fool

creel (n.): large wicker basket

The pot of potatoes was turned out on a creel.

—Kavanagh, Green Fool

Bassani captures perfectly the way that the mere visibility of a victim or former victim spurs in a fascist (or a fascist-leaning bystander) the impression of being unfairly attacked.

The word “mother” is always to some extent in the vocative.

The sonorous, etymologically spurious second “o” in the word “reportorial” is the reason one likes to say it so often.

“Be nice,” the man growled to his dog.

limber (n.): detachable, two-wheeled forepart of a gun-carriage, used for transporting ammunition

“And also, your honour, Artemyev got drunk yesterday, and the lieutenant ordered him to be put in the limber of a spare gun-carriage.”

—Chekhov, “The Kiss”

“And certainly this doesn’t mean that M. Legrandin was insincere when he thundered against snobs. He was incapable of knowing—on his own, at least—that he was one, because we only ever know the passions of other people, and insofar as we manage to know of our own, it’s only from others that we’re able to learn it. On us the passions only act in a secondary way, through the imagination, which substitutes for primary motives intermediate ones that are more decent. Legrandin’s snobbery never advised him to go see a duchess frequently. It charged his imagination with making this duchess appear to be arrayed with all the graces.” —Proust, Du côté de chez Swann; the passage also seems to describe the operation of unconscious racism

“The ferocity of the financial crisis in 2008 was met with a mobilization of state action without precedent in the history of capitalism. Never before outside wartime had states intervened on such a scale and with such speed. It was a devastating blow to the complacent belief in the great moderation, a shocking overturning of prevailing laissez-faire ideology. To mobilize trillions of dollars on the credit of the taxpayer to save banks from the consequences of their own folly and greed violated maxims of fairness and good government. But given the risk of contagion, how could states not act? Having done so, however, how could they ever go back to the idea that markets were efficient, self-regulating and best left to their own devices? It was a profound challenge to the basic idea that had guided economic government since the 1970s. It was all the more significant for the fact that the challenge came not from the outside. It was not motivated by some radical ideological turn to the Left or the Right. There was precious little time for thought or wider consideration. Intervention was driven by the financial system’s own malfunctioning and the impossibility of separating individual business failure from its wider systemic repercussions. Martin Wolf, the Financial Times‘s esteemed chief economic commentator, dubbed March 14, 2008, ‘the day the dream of global free-market capitalism died.'” —Adam Tooze, Crashed

“I once heard a filmmaker say that in order to be truly creative a person must be in possession of four things: irony, melancholy, a sense of competition, and boredom.” —Lisa Halliday, Asymmetry

“He who undertakes anything, thinking he is doing it out of a sense of duty, is deceiving himself and will ruin everything he touches.” —Auden, The Prolific and the Devourer

There is a charm in solitude that cheers,
A feeling that the world knows nothing of;
A green delight the wounded mind endears
After the hustling world is broken off,
Whose whole delight was crime—at good to scoff.
Green solitude, his prison, pleasure yields,
The bitch fox heeds him not; birds seem to laugh.
He lives the Crusoe of his lonely field
Whose dark green oaks his noontide leisure shield.

—John Clare, “Solitude”

Notes, 2016

“They are like that.” —Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (“they” being homosexuals)

In thinking about revolutions, the usual mistake is to imagine that people decide which side to fight for by looking to their interests. But they don’t, at least not in any long-term way. They look to the immediate advantages or disadvantages, which mostly consist of rewards and punishments that others in their society are willing to inflict, or willing to pay to have inflicted. The few are indeed few, but they are able to buy the services, if not the allegiance, of the many in a pinch.

“But if one wants to be primarily a writer, then, in our society, one is an animal that is tolerated but not encouraged—something rather like a house sparrow—and one gets on better if one realizes one’s position from the start.” —Orwell, “The Cost of Letters,” 1946

At some point, Am I crazy to keep doing this? is no longer the right question to ask, because you have been doing it so long that you no longer have the option of doing anything else. The realization is not necessarily pleasant.

Is growing old more painful for the beautiful, or is it in fact not that hard for them to resign themselves merely to being more beautiful than others their age?

If the super leaves a mirror outside our building, in the spot reserved for furniture that strangers are welcome to take away, it gets shattered by the end of the day. A television’s screen, on the other hand, remains intact for weeks.

By an iron law, probably having something to do with my vanity, I only find men beautiful if they are my age or younger. But every year, as I age, a larger and larger proportion of the men in the world fall into this category. If I live long enough, then by the end of my life, there will scarcely be any man in the world I couldn’t fall for, which might be hardly bearable.

Teenage boys in the park, talking about the strains of marijuana they have recently acquired, are so hobbled by the low waists of their pants that they have the gait of geishas.

To say what you know, without reference to what the powers that be would like to hear, is always a claim to sovereignty.

“I am not with you” is what a writer is always saying.

falcate (adjective): bent or curved like a sickle

In my mind I saw the rainbands of the storm, the falcate concentric arms, reach out across a thousand miles to embrace the coast.

—Greg Jackson, Prodigals

“Unintended baggage may be removed or destroyed.” —public service announcement on the loudspeaker in the Newark Airport

Hypervigilance is not intelligence, though my history has conditioned me to confuse them. Real intelligence would involve a more prudent and thoughtful management of one’s attention.

“It seems in America you can have pederasts in books as long as they are fearfully gloomy and end by committing suicide.” —Jessica Mitford, quoted in Gregory Woods, Homintern

“A revolutionary with taste in wine has come already half the distance from Marx to Burke.” —Norman Mailer, Miami and the Siege of Chicago

“To know how it feels to be a seaweed you have to get in the water.” —Saul Bellow, Seize the Day

“Otters are extremely bad at doing nothing.” —Gavin Maxwell, Ring of Bright Water

Just put your phone over your face is a weird sales pitch.

“I might write of it and subsequent events with a wry dishonesty, a negation of my feeling for that creature, which might disarm criticism, might forestall the accusation of sentimentality and slushiness to which I now lay myself open. There is, however, a certain obligation of honesty upon a writer, without which his words are worthless.” —Maxwell, Ring

spraint (noun): the excrement of an otter

I remember seeing, in that year when the cubs were on Otter Island, a tiny caterpillar of spraint whose deposition must have been an acrobatic feat for the tottering cub.

—Maxwell, Ring

Love is the fart
Of every heart:
It pains a man when ’tis kept close,
And others doth offend when ’tis let loose.

—John Suckling, “Love’s Offense”

Remember, kids: By the end of Miami and the Siege of Chicago, Mailer has come to believe that the republic would be safer with Nixon.

Heard through the window while brushing my teeth: the reassuring gray hyperventilating of the USPS van’s engine, and its even more reassuring sudden death.

I’m worried that you’ve been tone-policing my concern-trolling.

O hateful error, melancholy’s child,
Why dost thou show to the apt thoughts of men
The things that are not?

—Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

When I was young, I thought that Copperfield, in wedding Agnes, was at last marrying someone who was suitably adult, and that Dora had been a mistake, caused by a childish fantasy of what love is. But now I think that Dora, however disappointing, was a real love, and that in wedding Agnes, David wedded only his anima, a fiction of his own feminine nature.

“The deliberate manipulation of anachronisms to produce an appearance of eternity.” —Borges, pronouncing judgment on T. S. Eliot, quoted in James Gleick, Time Travel

“She liked Victorian novels. They were the only kind of novel you could read while you were eating an apple.” —Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

“One of the disadvantages of almost universal education was the fact that all kinds of persons acquired a familiarity with one’s favorite writers. It gave one a curious feeling; it was like seeing a drunken stranger wrapped in one’s dressing-gown.” —Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm

“They always say, she says, that my writing is appalling but they always quote it and what is more, they quote it correctly, and those they say they admire they do not quote.” —Gertrude Stein, Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

“. . . translating heartache into delicate, even piercing observation . . .” —Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler’s Planet

But then Mr. Arthur Sammler took a picture of it with his cell phone and by the time he got upstairs it had gone viral on gay porn Tumblrs.

“In explaining his unhappiness he told Gertrude Stein, they talk about the sorrows of great artists, the tragic unhappiness of great artists but after all they are great artists. A little artist has all the tragic unhappiness and the sorrows of a great artist and he is not a great artist.” —Stein, Toklas

“In the lecture, Martha Nussbaum described how the Roman philosopher Seneca, at the end of each day, reflected on his misdeeds before saying to himself, ‘This time I pardon you.'” —Rachel Aviv, “The Philosopher of Feelings”

“One person with a belief is equal to ninety-nine who have only interests.” —J. S. Mill, Representative Government

The downside of reading G. H. Hardy is that if you’re not a mathematician you end up fairly well convinced that you’ve wasted your life.

The process of memory is abrasive and skins a little of the nap off of what is remembered.

And art made tongue-tied by authority
And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill,
And simple truth miscalled simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill

—Shakespeare, sonnet 66

One’s memories fading before one has written one’s novels from them—like a photograph fading in a box before it can be rediscovered and reproduced.

One almost gets the sense this year that there are people who don’t care whether they’ll turn out to be on the wrong side of history, morally speaking.

Dude, I’m part of the mainstream media. I’m not likely to believe your conspiracy theories about it.

“It fareth with sentences as with coins: In coins, they that in smallest compass contain greatest value, are best esteemed: and, in sentences, those that in fewest words comprise most matter, are most praised.” —Lancelot Andrewes, quoted in Drury, Music at Midnight

“As an historian he had the fatal inhibition that he would not begin to write until he had read all the sources.” —footnote about Lord Acton, in One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper

“Perhaps the mere effort to convert any one to a theory involves some form of renunciation of the power of credence.” —Oscar Wilde, “Portrait of Mr. W. H.”

“He only seemed to have most pre-eminence that was most rageful.” —Phlip Sidney, The Old Arcadia

“But let me tell you that the delight of political life is altogether in opposition. Why, it is freedom against slavery, fire against clay, movement against stagnation! The very inaccuracy which is permitted to opposition is in itself a charm worth more than all the patronage and all the prestige of ministerial power.” —Trollope, Phineas Finn

In Shane Carruth’s movies, the problem of incarnation takes the form of a discovery that you’re involved in an almost mechanical process that’s much larger and more powerful than you are.

Winning doesn’t seem to be enough for the comments. It looks like they won’t be content until they’ve exterminated the articles.