What happens when you are in love?

[Click image to enlarge]

In Ways of Seeing, John Berger answers:

When in love, the sight of the beloved has a completeness which no words and no embrace can match: a completeness which only the act of making love can temporarily accommodate.

—p. 8

Do houses have loyalty?

I also thought of knocking on the door of our old house, explaining that I was born there, that I lived there until I was eleven, and wanted to look around. I abandoned the idea as soon as I’d thought of it. Houses have no loyalty. We can live in a place ten years and within a fortnight of moving out it is as if we have never been there. It may still bear the scars of our occupancy, of our botched attempts at DIY, but it vacates itself of our memory as soon as the new people move their stuff in. We want houses to reciprocate our feelings of loss but, like the rectangle of unfaded paint where a favourite mirror once hung, they give us nothing to reflect upon. Often in films someone goes to a house where he once spent happier times and, slowly, the screen is filled with laughing. This convention works so powerfully precisely because, in life, it is not like that. It testifies to the strength of our longing: we want houses to be haunted. They never are.

—p. 87

What is a stable thing?

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins answers:

A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name. It may be a unique collection of atoms, such as the Matterhorn, that lasts long enough to be worth naming. Or it may be a class of entities, such as rain drops, that come into existence at a sufficiently high rate to deserve a collective name, even if any one of them is short-lived. The things that we see around us, and which we think of as needing explanationrocks, galaxies, ocean wavesare all, to a greater or lesser extent, stable patterns of atoms. Soap bubbles tend to be spherical because this is a stable configuration of thin films filled with gas. In a spacecraft, water is also stable in spherical globules, but on earth, where there is gravity, the stable surface for standing water is flat and horizontal. Salt crystals tend to be cubes because this is a stable way of packing sodium and chloride ions together. In the sun the simplest atoms of all, hydrogen atoms, are fusing to form helium atoms, because in the conditions that prevail there the helium configuration is more stable. Other even more complex atoms are being formed in stars all over the universe, ever since soon after the ‘big bang’ which, according to the prevailing theory, initiated the universe. This is originally where the elements on our world came from.

pp. 12-13

What is the best split infinitive in literature?

Frederic Gable

According to Margaret Drabble in a Guardian article, the last stanza of Lord Byron‘s “Love and Death” contains ‘the greatest split infinitive in literature’.

Byron wrote the poem in 1824, shortly before he died. The poem was intended for his young Greek page, Lucas, who sadly did not return Byron’s romantic feeling.

Read the poem below and see if you agree with Drabble. Do you know other interesting uses of split infinitive in literature? Tell me.

Interestingly, Drabble also observes that “The best love poems are written by the most faithless lovers”. She uses Robert Burns and Byron as examples.


by Lord Byron

I watched thee when the foe was at our side,
Ready to strike at him – or thee and me
Were safety hopeless – rather than divide
Aught with one loved save love and liberty.

I watched thee on the breakers where a rock

Received our prow and all was storm and fear,
And bade thee cling to me through every shock;
This arm would be thy bark, or breast thy bier.

I watched thee when the fever glazed thine eyes,

Yielding my couch and stretched me on the ground,
When overworn with watching ne’er to rise
From thence if thou an early grave hadst found.

The earthquake came, and rocked the quivering wall,

And men and nature reeled as if with wine.
Whom did I seek around the tottering hall?
For thee. Whose safety first prove for? Thine.

And when convulsive throes denied my breath

The faintest utterance to my fading thought,
To thee – to thee – e’en in the gasp of death
My spirit turned, oh! oftener than it ought.

Thus much and more; and yet thou lovs’t me not,

And never wilt! Love dwells not in our will
Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot
To strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.

What is a cupcake?

A cupcake is just a muffin with clown puke topping. And once you’ve got through the clown puke there’s nothing but a fistful of quotidian sponge nestling in a depressing, soggy “cup” that feels like a pair of paper knickers a fat man has been sitting in throughout a long, hot coach journey between two disappointing market towns. Actual slices of cake are infinitely superior, as are moist chocolate brownies, warm chocolate-chip cookies and virtually any other dessert you can think of. 

But who doesn’t love looking at beautiful cupcakes?

Who did and do the Chinese blame for the Opium Wars?

from Bernard Porter’s LRB article on  Julia Lovell’s The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China:

When it came to explaining their humiliations, the Chinese tended not to blame the invaders so much as themselves, or their Manchu rulers, or other Chinese. They were embarrassed by their own cowardice, scathing about their military leaders, suspicious of their compatriots (the Cantonese especially) for cosying up to the foreign traders, and constantly seeing traitors in their midst. They also blamed themselves for the opium trade: if corrupt local officials hadn’t been so willing to disregard the ban on its import, and the Chinese hadn’t wanted to smoke the stuff, it would not have gone on. China’s wounds were self-inflicted. ‘Worms only appear in a rotten carcass,’ was how one man put it in the 1860s. This seems to have been the usual Chinese reaction to the Opium Wars for years afterwards. ‘If a people is dispirited and stupid,’ Yan Fu wrote half a century later, ‘then the society will disintegrate, and when a society in disintegration encounters an aggressive, intelligent, patriotic people, it will be dominated.’


As for ‘revenge for wrongs inflicted’, we can only hope that the Chinese have forgiven us. There may be reasons for thinking they have. One of the most interesting findings in this book comes not from documentary evidence, but from conversations Lovell had with history teachers and pupils in Chinese schools. Officially the ‘patriotic’ line is that everything bad that has happened to China in the last 170 years, starting with the Opium Wars, is the fault of Western imperialism. Lovell sat in on a lesson on the subject. ‘Soon, the only way I could keep myself awake was by sitting at the back and keeping a count on all the students who had obviously fallen asleep.’ When it came to the class discussion, however, they all perked up: ‘We lost because we were too weak, too closed up’; ‘We had no backbone’; ‘Our weapons were three hundred years behind the West’; ‘We were too cowardly, too backward, too isolated.’ They were returning to the line their ancestors had taken in the 19th century. This may be one of the most remarkable and distinctive features of the Opium Wars: that both sides’ perceptions of them at the time, and historical memories of them since, are so inglorious.

Why is it good to just stand and stare sometimes?

 Rene Magritte’s “The False Mirror”

William Henry Davies in his poem “Leisure” answers:

by W.H. Davies

WHAT is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass,
No time to see, in broad day light,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at beauty’s glance
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

from Songs Of Joy and Others (1911)

Please also see this post about squirrels.

What might be the sexiest non-sex scene in poetry?

“Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” (1932) -Picasso

The Hug
By Thom Gunn

 It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who'd showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
Become familial.
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.

What is it we want really? For what end and how?

Louis MacNeice in Autumn Journal (1939) answers:

If it is something feasible, obtainable,
…..Let us dream it now,
And pray for a possible land
…..Not of sleepwalkers, not of angry puppets,
But where both hand and brain can understand
…..The movements of our fellows;
Where life is an instrument and none
…..Is debarred his natural music,
Where the waters of life are free of the ice-blockade of hunger
…..And thought is as free as the sun,
Where the altars of sheer power and mere profit
…..Have fallen to disuse,
Where nobody sees the use
…..Of buying money and blood at the cost of blood and money,
Where the individual, no longer squandered
…..In self-assertion, works with the rest, endowed
With the split vision of a juggler and the quick lock of a taxi,
…..Where the people are more than a crowd.

from Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, xxiv (pp. 81-82)

Why do Western vampires know kung fu?

Kim Newman in Anno Dracula (2011 [1991]) answers:

The Chinese movie tradition of the hopping vampire (jiang shi or geung si) is one of the odder strains of vampirism. I saw Ricky Lau’s Mr Vampire (1985) in London’s Chinatown before the film and its many spinoffs, sequels and variants had made much impact outside its home territory. A lingering aftereffect of this cycle is that, from Buffy and Blade on, even Western vampires tend to know kung fu.

(p. 433)

What advantages attended shaving by night?

James Joyce in Ulysses (1922) answers:

A softer beard: a softer brush if intentionally allowed to remain from shave to shave in its agglutinated lather: a softer skin if unexpectedly encountering female acquaintances in remote places at incustomary hours: quiet reflections upon the course of the day: a cleaner sensation when awaking after a fresher sleep since matutinal noises, premonitions and perturbations, a clattered milkcan, a postman’s double knock, a paper read, reread while lathering, relathering the same spot, a shock, a shoot, with thought of aught he sought though fraught with nought might cause a faster rate of shaving and a nick on which incision plaster with precision cut and humected and applied adhered which was to be done.

–from Episode 17, “Ithaca”

What exactly is that place we call ‘bed’?

In Alias Grace (1996), Margaret Atwood answers from a woman’s perspective:

[Y]ou may think a bed is a peaceful thing, Sir, and to you it may mean rest and comfort and a good night’s sleep. But it isn’t so for everyone; and there are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed. It is where we are born, and that is our first peril in life; and it is where the women give birth, which is often their last. And it is where the act takes place between men and women that I will not mention to you, Sir, but I suppose you know what it is; and some call it love, and others despair, or else merely an indignity which they must suffer through. And finally beds are what we sleep in, and where we dream, and often where we die.

(p. 186)

Does one need to be dissatisfied to be a writer?

Quote of the day – Pamuk on ‘dissatisfaction’

I was reading the “The New Lyric Studies” section of the January 2008 edition of PMLA but found the interview with Orhan Pamuk interesting as well. In it, Pamuk talks about his literary tradition, his Turkish identity, the influence of Edward Said’s Orientalism on his writing, the head-scarf issue, his notion of home (he says he ‘felt not “at home” as Adorno suggested’) and his memoir Istanbul. Lastly, he responds to the question ‘Does one need to be dissatisfied to be a writer[?]‘ (see the full question and Pamuk’s answer below). Pamuk concludes the interview with these words: ‘Of course, I am dissatisfied, but then I am happy with my dissatisfaction.’
I agree with Pamuk that one needs to be dissatisfied to be a writer. It sparks creativity and is a general state of mind. It is not important what one is dissatisfied about, although of course the subject of dissatisfaction will enter one’s discourse. Equally important for the writer, I think, is the counterpoint of dissatisfaction — contentment. Somewhere a balance ought to be struck. I am not entirely sure if one can (or should) be ‘happy’ with one’s dissatisfaction, however. To be happy with your dissatisfaction (that is, shall I say, ‘dissatisfaction contained’) sounds like an oxymoron. Any thoughts?
Mirze: Does one need to be dissatisfied to be a writer, about life, about parents, about country, about neighbors, about money?
Pamuk: Of course, no one is satisfied anyway, but then most of the time what is interesting is how we represent our dissatisfaction first to ourselves, then how we understand it, how we elaborate it, analyze it. I think everyone is dissatisfied, even the happiest person, but then thinking is explaining our dissatisfaction, first to ourselves, then to our culture, to the people who are with us. Of course, I am dissatisfied, but then I am happy with my dissatisfaction. (180)
–Mirze, Esra Z. “Implementing Disform: An Interview with Orhan Pamuk”, PMLA 123.1 (2008):176-180.

"And ain’t I a woman?"

“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

–from Sojourner Truth‘s famous 1851 speech to a woman’s convention in Akron, Ohio. I first encountered it in The Vintage Book of Historical Feminism (pp. 94-95) but you can also read the full speech here. I love how Truth ends her speech: “Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.” I wish I have the guts to say something similar in my speeches.

What is the closest thing one can do to imitate a bird wing?

Kyoko Mori answers in One Bird (1995):

I raise my left arm and begin to wave as the birds disappear over the neighbor’s houses, and my eyes ache from staring into the sky. I know they will be back among the flocks of sparrows in Dr. Mizutani’s yard–eating the seeds from the feeders, splashing noisily in the birdbath. Only I will never again be able to tell them apart from all the other young sparrows, the hundreds of this spring’s babies with their streaky breasts and pinkish legs. So even after I can no longer see my sparrows, I keep waving in the direction of their flight. If they could look back, they would see the blurred motion of my arm–a rough, repeated outline in the air, the closest thing I can manage to a wing. 

-pp. 243-44

Thank you, Dr. Eri Hitotsuyanagi, for introducing me to this text.

How many romantic kisses are there in the entire body of Virginia Woolf’s work?

The Kiss (1897-8) by Munch 

Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, answers in a Guardian article:

[Virginia Woolf] wrote not at all about sex. Her entire body of work contains two romantic kisses – one in The Voyage Out, another in Mrs Dalloway – and after those two relatively early books, no erotic episodes of any kind.  

You should also read Cunningham’s brief discussion of teeth and (in)sanity.

so that they would kiss every time one turned a page.-Cunningham

What are the most poignant encounters with music?

…and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee Donne

In the review article “Hubbub”, Nicholas Spice answers:

[T]he most poignant encounters with music are inadvertent and unplanned. Church bells heard across the fields on a Sunday evening, the forlorn plinking and plonking two streets away of an ice-cream van on solitary summer afternoons, someone practising the saxophone in a neighbouring house: such half-heard music sets up momentary perspectives on our situation, touches us with sadness or strikes us with interesting incongruities. It is the literary imagination which is stimulated by music heard by chance, the imagination that enjoys the possibilities suggested by the collision of disparate realities, the imagination that feeds on the ironies which a split attention (not a distracted attention) perceives. (pp. 135-136)

What kind of half-heard music touches you?

For me, everytime I hear some fragments of the song “Streets of London” being played by a street musician on a London street or on the Tube, I am inexplicably sad. The music reminds me of a younger self listening to the song on the radio late in the evening in Hong Kong, many times. I had not dreamt that one day I would be wandering through some London streets, ‘Near where the charter’d Thames does flow‘.

When is love at its most intense?

A.S. Byatt in The Children’s Book (2009) answers:

But Julian was clever and observant enough to see that love was at its most intense before it was reciprocated. ‘Love is a standing, or still growing light / And his first moment, after noon, is night.’ ‘What will it be when that the watery palate tastes indeed / Love’s thrice repured nectar?’

–p. 251

More from this book.

What is money?

A.S. Byatt in The Children’s Book (2009) answers:

Money was freedom. Money was aesthetic. Money was Arab stallions, not rough cobs. Money was not being shouted at. […] Money was freedom. Money was life.  -p. 59

How poor can one get?

‘I once walked through Poplar behind two ragged men. They bent continuously to the pavement, picking up orange peel and apple cores, grape stems and crumbs. They cracked the pits of plums between their teeth for the kernels inside. They picked single undigested oats out of horse dung. Can you imagine?’ – p. 58


‘How can these people bear to go to church and then go about in the streets and see what is there for everyone to see – and get told what the Bible says about the poor – and go on riding in carriages, and choosing neckties and hats – and eating huge beefsteaks – I can’t see it.’ -p. 170

More from this book.

Who is the best-loved child?

A.S. Byatt in The Children’s Book (2009) answers:

The parents […] found it hard in practice to do what they believed in theory they should do, which was to love all the children equally. A man and a woman with nine or ten, or twelve children spread their love differently from the way in which they might have concentrated on a singleton or two infants. Love depended on the spaces between infants, on the health of the parents, on death, on the chances of which child survived an epidemic or an accident, and which did not. These were families in which the best-loved child had died, and remained the best-loved. There were families in which, apparently, the dead had disappeared without trace, and were not spoken of as realities. There were families in which an unborn child was dreaded and shrunken from, only to become, on emerging alive from blood and danger, the best-loved after all. -pp. 29-30


The young desired to be free of the adults, and at the same time were prepared to resent any hint that the adults might desire to be free of them. -p. 227

More from this book.

When can a gift be rejected as worthless?

Click the image to learn more about the object

“It’s easy for an ungrateful recipient to become unworthy of a gift, and conversely, a gift given without worthy intentions is one which can be rejected as worthless.” (p. 26)

Chris Healy on the ‘breastplates’ Australian Aboriginal people received from colonisers. He likens these plates to ‘chains’. The quote is from Healy’s passionately-written “Chained to their signs: remembering breastplates” (pp. 24-35), which is collected in Body Trade. The final paragraph of the essay moved me to tears.

Who are the girls that are wanted?

The Managing Housewife

J. H. Gray’s poem “The Girls that are Wanted” (c. 1880) might give you some ideas.

The girls that are wanted are good girls
Good from the heart to the lips
Pure as the lily is white and pure
From its heart to its sweet leaf tips.

The girls that are wanted are girls with hearts
They are wanted for mothers and wives
Wanted to cradle in loving arms
The strongest and frailest lives.

The clever, the witty, the brilliant girl
There are few who can understand
But, oh! For the wise, loving home girls
There’s a constant, steady demand.

–from “The Girls that are Wanted” by J. H. Gray.

What’s special about photography?

Isobel Armstrong praises photography; and a certain person’s justification of her obsession with (her own) images.

“The very fact that [the photograph] emerges from a fleeting moment in time means that that time is irrevocably lost. Even to exchange the photographed rose with the real rose a few hours later is to expose the delicate ravage of time in a disposition of pollen or fallen petal or the transformation of light. Photographs are celebrations of the uniqueness of every moment of being, every configuration of shadow and substance, and an elegy upon them. The permanent structures guaranteed by the physics of light, and the impermanent moment when the light never again falls in exactly the same way, are its dialectic. Photographs are as heavily mediated as paintings, depending on light, camera angle, the grain of paper, the mood of the artist. Photographs of the same object by different people are always different, utterances about the play of light, universes exposed in a single lens, epiphanies of transcience.”

–Isobel Armstong’s The Radical Aesthetic, p. 8

How must one tell the truth?

“The Pleasant truth” (1966) by rene MAGRITTE

Emily Dickinson answers:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—
Do you agree with Dickinson?

And Wallace Stevens wrote: “In the long run the truth does not matter.”