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.

Trollope on the worth of street protest

In Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn, a novel set in the 1860s about a somewhat hapless member of Parliament, one of the crucial political issues of the day is “the ballot,” i.e., whether votes should be public or secret. Though Finn is a liberal, he thinks votes should be public, at least at the start of the novel (which I haven’t finished yet); he believes transparency deters voters from choosing a narrow self-interest. Electoral reform, however, is on the march. Even though MPs like Finn aren’t yet ready for a secret ballot, many citizens are, and at the end of volume one (it’s a three-decker), a large group of protesters is scheduled to meet outside the Houses of Parliament, in hopes of influenceing a debate inside about adding the secret ballot to a larger measure for electoral reform. Finn’s landlord, Mr. Bunce, supports the secret ballot and plans to attend the protest. Finn tries to dissuade him, not because he wants the protest to be smaller but because he doesn’t think a respectable man like Bunce ought to protest and he’s worried that Bunce could be arrested. The two have an argument, remarkably civil and considerate given that they hold opposing views, and the way they talk about the worth of street protest, or lack thereof, and how to balance freedom of expression with concern for law and order, makes the passage seem awfully relevant to America today:

“What good do you expect to do, Mr. Bunce?” Phineas said, with perhaps some little tone of authority in his voice.

“To carry my point,” said Bunce.

“And what is your point?”

“My present point is the ballot, as a part of the Government measure.”

“And you expect to carry that by going out into the streets with all the roughs of London, and putting yourself in direct opposition to the authority of the magistrates? Do you really believe that the ballot will become the law of the land any sooner because you incur this danger and inconvenience?”

“Look here, Mr. Finn; I don’t believe the sea will become any fuller because the Piddle runs into it out of the Dorsetshire fields; but I do believe that the waters from all the countries is what makes the ocean. I shall help; and it’s my duty to help.”

“It’s your duty, as a respectable citizen, with a wife and family, to stay at home.”

“If everybody with a wife and family was to say so, there’d be none but roughs, and then where should we be? What would the Government people say to us then? If every man with a wife and family was to show hisself in the streets to-night, we should have the ballot before Parliament breaks up, and if none of ’em don’t do it, we shall never have the ballot. Ain’t that so?” Phineas, who intended to be honest, was not prepared to dispute the assertion on the spur of the moment. “If that’s so,” said Bunce, triumphantly, “a man’s duty’s clear enough. He ought to go, though he’d two wives and families.” And he went.

When Gödel did the political math

I spent much of the past week coughing when I should have been sleeping, the only boon of which is that I managed to read Jordan Ellenberg’s lively and instructive How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking. I came across an alarming politics-related anecdote about Kurt Gödel, the mathematician who famously demonstrated that in any formal axiomatic system of arithmetic, there will be some true theorems that can’t be proved to be true.

Apparently, when Gödel was studying for the U.S. citizenship test in 1948, he found what seemed to him a fatal flaw. “The document,” Ellenberg writes, “contained a contradiction that could allow a Fascist dictatorship to take over the country in a perfectly constitutional manner.” For better or worse, the exact nature of this flaw has been lost to posterity, but Gödel was apparently so upset that he couldn’t help but talk about his concern with the judge who examined him on behalf of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, despite the advice of colleagues Albert Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern, who thought he should keep his worry to himself. Years later, in 1971, Morgenstern wrote down his memory of the exchange:

The examiner turned to Gödel and said, Now, Mr. Gödel, where do you come from?

Gödel: Where I come from? Austria.

The examiner: What kind of government did you have in Austria?

Gödel: It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship.

The examiner: Oh! This is very bad. This could not happen in this country.

Gödel: Oh, yes, I can prove it.

The examiner, Morgenstern remembered, “was intelligent enough to quickly quieten Gödel and broke off the examination at this point, greatly to our relief.”

Ellenberg’s source is a webpage at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, a page that unfortunately no longer exists, but there’s an account of Gödel’s immigration exam on page 7 of the spring 2006 issue of the institute’s newsletter, and the writer Jeffrey Kegler has put together a synopsis of the documentary evidence and has shared a scan of Morgenstern’s memorandum.