On black and white

In her Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and The Imagination 1830-1880, Isobel Armstrong has this wonderful reflection on ‘black’ and ‘white’:

White paper in full moonlight is darker than black satin in daylight, or a dark object with the sun shining on it reflects light of exactly the same colour, and perhaps the same brightness, as a white object in shadow. ‘Grey in shadow looks like white’ ([P.H. Emerson,] p. 110). The whiteness of paper and the blackness of satin are not absolutes: their values can be reversed to the darkness of white paper and brightness or even pallor of black satin according to the relative intensities of the light both reflected and falling upon them. Or the antithesis between dark and white can be cancelled out by the intensity of light in one case and shadow in the other. Or bright light brings out the brightness of some objects as dark of dark objects. In addition ‘Atmosphere greys all things‘ (p. 111). ‘[T]o all these difficulties are added those dependent on the subtleties of light reflected into shadow, and the thousand-and-one changes of colour due to the numerous shadows cast by objects in nature’ (p. 113). Wittgenstein’s understanding that a natural history of colour would be temporal, examining the juxtaposition of snow on white paper (which would look grey), or hazarding different words for matt and shiny black, is latent in Emerson’s theory, which presupposes that thought animates the camera lens.

p. 352

Bloom recalls Auden: ‘a large bottle of gin, a small one of vermouth, a plastic drinking cup, and a sheaf of poems’

In The Anatomy of Influence (2011), Harold Bloom reminisces about W.H. Auden:

I treasure ruefully some memories of W.H. Auden that go back to the middle 1960s, when he arrived in New Haevn to give a reading of his poems at Ezra Stiles College. We had met several times before, in New York City and at Yale, but were only acquaintances. The earlier Auden retains my interest, but much of the frequently devotional later poetry does not find me. Since our mutual friend John Hollander [to whom The Anatomy of Influence is dedicated] was abroad, Auden phoned to ask if he might stay with my wife and me, remarking on his dislike of college guest suites.

The poet arrived in a frayed, buttonless overcoat, which my wife insisted on mending. His luggage was an attaché case containing a large bottle of gin, a small one of vermouth, a plastic drinking cup, and a sheaf of poems. After being supplied with ice, he requested that I remind him of the amount of his reading fee. A thousand dollars had been the agreed sum, a respectable honorarium more than forty years ago. He shook his head and said that as a prima donna he could not perform, despite the prior arrangement. Charmed by this, I phoned the college master–a good friend–who cursed heartily but doubled the sum when I assured him that the poet was as obdurate as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest. Informed of this yielding, Auden smiled sweetly and was benign and brilliant at dinner, then at the reading, and as he went to bed after we got home.

p. 133

[More from this book.]

Bloom on Bloom

From Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence (2011), p. 249:

“Naming” (as in Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin) is closer to the real concerns of literature. I am moved here by my own splendid name of “Bloom,” particularly since my personal favorite among Whitman’s poems is “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Charmed as I also am by Stevensian derivatives (“stopped / In the door-yard by his own capacious bloom” and “Our bloom is gone. We are the fruit thereof”), it seems to me the most literary of names, though a price is paid. Whenever I teach Joyce’s Ulysses I refer to the hero as Poldy, since my name has been confiscated–for a time. I never feel that my name comes from the outside. In the cold April in which I write any snatch of fresh bloom cheers me. There is little logic to a self-delighting name, but I gasp when told this is a creation by catastrophe.

What is your personal experience? Has your name been ‘confiscated’?

[More from this book.]

"Allie sells cookies, covered in snowflakes."

Christmas decoration from Joan in 2009.

What is your favourite ‘snowflakes’ moment in literature? Tell me.

Mine is:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. –from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House

The title of this post is a line from Ricky Garni’s poem “After 5 Inches of Snow 8 Inches of Facebook”.

Also see Mary A. Spytz’s beautiful handcrafted snowflakes at Fractal Snowflakes.

Every time you grab at love you will lose a snowflake of your memory. 

-from Leonard Cohen’s “The Story Thus Far”


Interestingly, one day after I wrote the above, I saw this:


Benjamin Markovits’s Childish Loves


The quotes below are from Benjamin Markovits’s Childish Loves (2011). Some are from the ‘contemporary’ section and some from the 18thC and 19thC pastiche. Can you tell?

  1. (In my day maybe half the English department, and a quarter of the history department, were working on novels; I was just one of a crowd.) -p. 2
  2. … and talked quite childishly about what is after all a rather childish love: I mean, the love of books. -p. 11
  3. Writers get rewarded according to their exaggerations. -p. 12
  4. I followed him into the hallway, suddenly filled with students (the noise of them like the noise of ugly birds). -p. 35
  5. Teaching is like marriage, he once said to me. ‘After thirty years of Shakespeare you got to figure it takes a certain effort of the memory to get it up.’ -p. 36
  6. Certain conversations also involve a form of arousal. -p. 48
  7. There is nothing that makes me more awkward than the duty to be pleasant[.] -p. 68
  8. I felt stupidly dejected returning home. All society disappoints you, until you become accustomed to it. Sympathy is a great illusion; there is only sometimes a coincidence of manner. -p. 69
  9. ‘I’m a mess today,’ she tended to announce when she saw me — as a matter of habit. A kind of apology for being thirty-three instead of thirteen. -p. 124
  10. That the long association with books breeds a certain manner, formal, gentle, curious, hesitant. -p. 138
  11. I liked the way she said scholar, as if it’s one of the old professions, like priest or whore. -p. 167
  12. If you want something done, there’s nothing like doing it yourself. -p. 174
  13. William Bankes likes to say that one needs the shelter of a reputation. -p. 186
  14. They call this place the University, but any other appellation would have suited it much better, for study is the last pursuit of the society. The master eats, drinks and sleeps, the Fellows drink, dispute and pun, and the employments of the undergraduates are more easily conjectured than described. -p. 187
  15. It is a great vice to think about money at all, but without it, one thinks of nothing but money. pp. 194-195
  16. But I write when no one else writes, at two in the morning, or at six; at breakfast or dinner; on sofa or lawn or bed, and in every conceivable position. Even at the mill-cottage, I have fitted up a table and furnished it with quill, ink, paper. -p. 207
  17. But perhaps I have been unfaithful, in my way — my heart always alights on the nearest perch. -p. 209
  18. She was too large to be kept like a cat and too small to be ridden like a horse. -p. 212
  19. We have all become very dull and the worst of it is, we are too dull to mind it much. -p. 230
  20. But then, we are often drawn to what displeases us. -pp. 232-233
  21. No happiness is so perfect that it does not demand more happiness. -p. 242
  22. We think the problem with adulthood is that we betrayed our childhoods to reach it. -p. 250
  23. But we have read the same books and that fact counted for more than the other differences. -p. 259
  24. Outside, across the shadows of the street, a typical college-town figure made his way: either a bum or a professor. -p. 261
  25. […] going naked was the best disguise. -p. 262 
  26. Libraries, like casinos, are designed to make you lose track of time — to forget there’s a world outside. -p. 311
  27. There is always a tax upon kindness, which is paid in further kindness. -p. 353
  28. But I have always maintained that I am the easiest of men to manage, and she had the art of it: which is, to let me do exactly as I please in the few matters on which I have an opinion, and in all other affairs to decide everything for herself. -p. 367
  29. I am not much used to making love where it was not wanted — I don’t have the art. p. 375 [You know this is from the Byron section, don’t you?]

"Stop, stop," she said. "No, go on; go on.["]

W.H. Mallock’s A Human Document (1892).
The quotes below are from the shorter New York version

  • “how deep in the mud must a woman walk before a man considers her progress interesting?” p. iv
  • “you excite expectations, though you have not yet satisfied them[.]” p. 9
  • “What is love like? I cannot even remember. You look as if you didn’t believe me; but I am not talking for effect. I have known the experience–the beginning, the middle, and the end of it, till I am as familiar with it, in one way, as I am with the journey to Brighton; but the impulse that made me undertake the journey is gone. I cannot even recall it.” p. 10
  • “First love is really like a first attempt on the fiddle. The magic and the music only come with experience. To love successfully you must often have loved in vain.” p. 11
  • I believe I am fit to marry, for this precise reason that I can no longer love. For by love, as I use the word now, and as Lady Ashford used it, what do we mean? We mean that despotic emotion which claims to extinguish, and which does extinguish while it lasts, all other emotions as the sun extinguishes a candle; which claims not to complete and crown the other blessings of life, but to supersede them. p. 24
  • … a breath of that faint unfamiliar smell which whispers to a stranger’s nerves the news that he is in a strange city. p. 36
  • “These people–I tell you you’ll be able to see it for yourself–can be charming to those whom they acknowledge their equals, and also to those who acknowledge themselves their inferiors; but to others, their insolence is something that an Englishwoman could hardly believe in.” p. 57
  • “You don’t understand women. Civility with a fine lady is often the grammar of impertinence.” p. 61
  • “But how much more important in mere point of attraction is a certain kind of bearing than beauty of face or form!” p. 65
  • “Do you see the petals?” she said. “They palpitate like the wings of butterflies.” p. 83
  • Her mood seemed to change like an English sky in April. At one moment she would be hidden behind some clouds of shyness; the next she would brighten, and show, with a happy unconscious confidence, herself and her slightest thoughts as the sky shows its blueness. p. 84
  • “I was like a book which he valued for the rarity of its binding, but which he neither could nor cared to read.” p. 130
  • “I only speak for myself. I want, personally, not to act, but to be.” p. 143
  • “I think it is Carlyle, or some German quoted by Carlyle, who says that a thought gains infinitely in value to the thinker, when he finds that another shares it.” pp. 156-157
  • “Bobby–I mean Bobby my brother–described once to me the pleasure he felt in China, at hearing in some strange place, the sound of his own language.” p. 157
  • …but some candles were burning, whose flames were like pale daffodils. p. 171
  • “Perhaps I should teach you what a strange thing a woman’s heart is. Its motto, I think, ought to be, ‘I am nothing if logical.'” p. 177
  • What may I write that shall hint of my love for you?
     ___My pen trembles idly, and doubts as it dips.
    Teach me some name that is tender enough for you:
    ___Or else hold me silent, my love, with your lips. p. 179
  • “Many hieroglyphics are very graceful in form, and so long as they are nothing but forms for us we, no doubt, think them pretty; but as soon as we learn to read them, we forget the prettiness of the letters, in thinking of the sense of the sentences.” p. 182
  • “Stop, stop,” she said. “No, go on; go on.[“] p. 205
  • Of all the troubles of life, the strained suspense of waiting, with every nerve stretched of doubt, of hope, and of hearing, in proportion to its real importance is the hardest for some temperaments to bear. pp. 223-224
  • But thoughts, however, scattered, are things which, in many cases, need only a severe enough summons to gather them together in an instant. Some men often wait idly for their thoughts to inspire their will; whereas what they really need is, that their will should compel their thoughts. p. 230
  • Everything presented the aggressive and painful neatness of a man who can think himself fashionable only when his clothes are new. p. 244 
  • “Trouble is love,” he replied, “what the night is to a star.” p. 251 “Trouble is to love,” he replied, “what the night is to a star.” p. 251 Thank you, Y, for the correction.
  • Everything on which their eyes rested was steeped in a pathetic beauty, which did not come from the sunset, though that indeed was beautiful, but which comes at any hour to things seen for the last time. p. 

One of the most famous beds in literature

“Odysseus and Penelope” (1563) by Francesco Primaticcio
From Homer’s Odyssey (Book 23):

For built into the well-constructed bedstead
is a great symbol which I made myself
with no one else. A long-leaved olive bush
was growing in the yard. It was in bloom
and flourishing—it looked like a pillar.
I built my bedroom round this olive bush,
till I had finished it with well-set stones.
I put a good roof over it, then added
closely fitted jointed doors. After that,
I cut back the foliage, by removing
branches from the long-leaved olive bush.
I trimmed the trunk off, upward from the root,
cutting it skillfully and well with bronze,
so it followed a straight line. Once I’d made
the bedpost, I used an augur to bore out
the entire piece. That was how I started.
Then I carved out my bed, till I was done.
In it I set an inlay made of gold,
silver, and ivory, and then across it
I stretched a bright purple thong of ox-hide.
And that’s the symbol I describe for you.

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”

Everything is Illuminated

Jonathan Safran Foer wrote his first novel Everything is Illuminated  (2002) when he was only 25.

Some quotes from the book:
1. But first I am burdened to recite my good appearance. p. 3
2. … because unless I do not want to, I do what Father tells me to do. Also, he is a first-rate puncher. p. 6
3. Dead as he was before his parents met. Or deader, maybe, for then he was at least a bullet in his father’s cock and an emptiness in his mother’s belly. p. 10
4. Thank you for the reproduction of the photograph of Augustine with her family. I have thought without end of what you said about falling in love with her. In truth, I never fathomed it when you uttered it in Ukraine. But I am certain that I fathom it now. I examine her once when it is morning, and once before I manufacture Z’s, and on every instance I see something new, some manner in which her hairs produce shadows, or her lips summarise angels. p. 24
5. I am doing something I hate for you. This is what it means to be in love. p. 27
6. In my family, father is the world champion at ending conversations. p. 27
7. “A Jewish word?” “Yiddish. Like schmuck.” “What does it mean schmuck?” ”Someone who does something that you don’t agree with is a schmuck.” “Teach me another.” “Putz.” “What does that mean?” “It’s like schmuck.” “Teach me another.” ”Schmendrink.” “What does that mean?” “It’s also like schmuck.” “Do you know any words that are not like schmuck?” He pondered for a moment. “Shalom,” he said, ”which is actually three words, but that’s Hebrew, not Yiddish. Everything I can think of is basically schmuck. The Eskimos have four hundred words for snow, and the Jews have four hundred for schmuck.” p. 60
8. Is God sad?

He would have to exist to be sad, wouldn’t He? I know, she said, giving his shoulder a little slap. That’s why I was asking, so I might finally know if you believed! Well, let me leave it at this: if God does exist, He would have a great deal to be sad about. And if He doesn’t exist, then that too would make Him quite sad, I imagine. So to answer your question, God must be sad. p. 78-79

9. Brod’s life was a slow realization that the world was not for her, and that for whatever reason, she would never be happy and honest at the same time. She felt as if she was brimming, always producing and hoarding more love inside her. But there was no release. p. 79
10. Love me, because love doesn’t exist, and I have tried everything that does. p. 82
11. ...”Deep down, the young are lonelier than the old” I read that in a book somewhere and it’s stuck in my head. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s not true. More likely, the young and old are lonely in different ways, in their own ways… p. 87
12. From space, astronauts can see people making love as a tiny speck of light. Not light, exactly, but a glow that could be mistaken for light — a coital radiance that takes generations to pour like honey through the darkness to the astronaut’s eyes. In about one and a half centuries — after the lovers who made the glow will have long since been laid permanently on their backs — metropolises will be seen from space. They will glow all year. Smaller cities will also be seen, but with great difficulty. Shtetls will be virtually impossible to spot. Individual couples, invisible. p. 95
13. Sentences became words became sighs became groans became grunts became light. p. 97
14. “But it’s only 6:30.” “Yes, but it will not be 6:30 forever. Look,” p. 106
15. This is love, she thought, isn’t it? When you notice someone’s absence and hate that absence more than anything? More, even, than you love his presence? p. 121
16. She loved her new vocabulary of simply loving someone more than she loved her love for that thing, and the vulnerability that went along with living in a the primary world. p. 122
17. The Kolker was trapped in his body — like a love note in an unbreakable bottle, whose script never fades or smudges, and is never read by the eyes of the intended lover — forced to hurt the one with whom he wanted most to be gentle. p. 130
18. They had never seen one another from afar. They had never known the deepest intimacy, that closeness attainable only with distance. She went to the hole and looked at him for several silent minutes. Then she backed away from the hole. He went to it and looked at her for several more silent minutes. In the silence they attained another intimacy, that of words without talking. p. 134
19. They lived with the hole The absence that defined it became a presence that defined them. Life was a small negative space cut out of the eternal solidity, and for the first time, it felt precious — not like all of the words that had come to mean nothing, but like the last breath of a drowning victim. p. 135
20. So they strung their minutes like pearls on an hour-string. p. 137
21. With writing, we have second chances. p. 144
22. Everything is the way it is because everything was the way it was. p. 145
23. First, I must describe that Augustine had a very unusual walk, which went from here to there with heaviness. She could not move any faster than slow. p. 146
24. He knew that I love you also means I love you more than anyone loves you, or has loved you, or will love you, and also, I love you in a way that no one loves you, or has loved you, or will love you, and also, I love you in a way that I love no one else, and never have loved anyone else, and never will love anyone else. He knew that it is, by love’s definition, impossible to love two people. p. 170
25. My grandfather was in love with the smell of women. He carried their scents around on his fingers like rings, and on the end of his tongue like words — unfamiliar combinations of familiar odors. In this way, Lista held a special place in his memory — although she was hardly unique in being a virgin, or a one-episode lover — as being the only partner to inspire him to bathe. p. 172
26. Jews Have Six Senses
Tough, taste, sight, smell, hearing … memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer,or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. It is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks — when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather’s fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather’s damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain — that th Jew is able to know why it hurts.
When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like? p. 198-199
27. Art
Art is that thing having to do only with itself–the product of a successful attempt to make a work of art. Unfortunately, there are no examples of art, nor good reasons to think that it will ever exist. (Everything that has been made has been made with a purpose, everything with an end that exists outside that thing, i.e., I want to sell this or I want this to make me famous and loved, or I want this to make me whole, or worse, I want this to make others whole.) And yet we continue to write, paint, sculpt, and compose. Is this foolish of us? p. 202
28. God loves the plagiarist. And so it is written, “God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created them.” God is the original plagiarizer. p. 206
29. The end of the world has come often, and continues to come. Unforgiving, unrelenting, bringing darkness upon darkness, the end of the world is something we have become well acquainted with, habitualized, made into a ritual. It is our religion to try to forget it in its absence, make peace with it when it is undeniable, and return its embrace when it finally comes for us, as it always does. p. 210
30. SADNESS OF THE INTELLECT: Sadness of being misunderstood [sic]; Humor sadness; Sadness of love wit[hou]t release; Sadne[ss of be]ing smart; Sadness of not knowing enough words to [express what you mean]; Sadness of having options; Sadness of wanting sadness; Sadness of confusion; Sadness of domes[tic]ated birds; Sadness of fini[shi]ing a book; Sadness of remembering; Sadness of forgetting; Anxiety sadness … p. 211-212
31. Not one of his friends — if it could be said that he had any other friends — knew about the Gypsy girl, and none of his other women knew about the Gypsy Girl, and his parents, of course, didn’t know about the Gypsy girl. She was such a tightly kept secret that sometimes he felt that not even he was privy to his relationship with her. She knew of his efforts to conceal her from the rest of his world, to keep her cloistered in a private chamber reachable only by a secret passage, to put her behind a wall. She knew that even if he thought he loved her, he did not love her. p. 232
32. Do not change. p. 234
33. To feel alone is to be alone. That’s what it is. p. 237
34. (You do not have to be shamed in my closeness. Family are the people who must never make you feel ashamed.)
(You are wrong. Family are the people who must make you feel ashamed when you are deserving of shame.) p. 245
35. The only thing more painful than being an active forgetter is to be an inert rememberer. p. 260

"The Woman" by Robert Creeley

The Woman
…………………………..by Robert Creeley

I have never
clearly given to you
the associations
you have for me, you

with such
divided presence my dream
does not show
you. I do not dream.

I have compounded
these sensations, the
accumulation of the things
left me by you.

Always your
tits, not breasts, but
harsh sudden rises
of impatient flesh

on the chest–is it
mine–which flower
against the vagueness
of the air you move in.

You walk
such a shortness
of intent strides, your
height is so low,

in my hand
I feel the weight
of yours there,
one over one

of both, as you
pivot upon me, the
same weight grown
as the hair, the

second of your attributes,
falls to
cover us. We
couple but lie against

no surface, have
lifted as you again
grow small
against myself, into

the air. The
air the third of
the signs of you
are known by: a

quiet, a soughing silence,
the winds lightly
moved. Then

mouth, it opens not
speaking, touches,

wet, on me. Then
I scream, I
sing such as is
given to me, roar-

ing unheard,
like stark sight
sees itself

into dark
turned. Onanistic.
I feel around
myself what

you have left me
with, wetness, pools
of it, my skin

(pp. 291-293)

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)

Cucumber sandwiches

‘Cucumber sandwiches’ — often a simplistic avatar of the English upper class in literature. I have never had one, have you?
  • ‎’[P]oems are worth all the cucumber-sandwiches in the world […] the perfect green circles — oh the delicate hint of salt — oh the fresh pale butter — oh, above all, the soft white crumbs and golden crust of the new bread’. –R. H. Ash, Possession, p. 157
  • ‘Hallo! Why all these cups? Why cucumber sandwiches? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young? Who is coming for Cha?’ — Jack, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act I
  • Cucumber Sandwiches in the Andes by John Ure

*Picture of cucumber sandwiches from here. * Oh yes, of course that wasn’t ‘Cha’. That was ‘tea’.

UPDATED: There was a very interesting discussion about the ingredients for a good cucumber sandwich on Facebook. I hope the discussants don’t mind my sharing it here:
[Click image to enlarge]

One memorable day

David Nicholls opens his hypnotic One Day (2009) with the following quote from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. How apt.

That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

Dickens. Dickens. Dickens. You deserve to be everywhere. Also read “What shouldn’t you be doing at 38?”.

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.

Ways of walking through a wood

Re-reading Eddie’s poem “Whose Woods These Are”, I am reminded of what Umberto Eco says in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods:1

There are two ways of walking through a wood. The first is to try one or several routes (so as to get out of the wood as fast as possible, say, or to reach the house of grandmother, Tom Thumb, or Hansel and Gretel); the second is to walk so as to discover what the wood is like and find out why some paths are accessible and others are not. (p. 27)

Eco is not only talking about woods. He is comparing walking through a wood to going through a narrative text. There is a model reader of the first level: he or she wants to know how the story ends; but there is also a model reader of the second level, whose intention you can guess.

Eco might have picked up this metaphor from Frost, who we all know applied walking in a wood to life. Which kind of walker are you?

Both illustrations above are by Gustave Doré: the first depicts a scene from Red Riding Hood and the second, Divine Comedy — “Dante in the Dusky Woods”.

Speaking of Red Riding Hood, Eco mentions an ‘alchemical interpretation’ of it:

[A]n Italian scholar has tried to prove that the fable refers to the process of extracting and treating minerals. Translating the fable into chemical formulas, he has identified Little Red Riding Hood as cinnabar, an artificial mercury sulfide which is as red as her hood is supposed to be. Thus, within herself, the child contains mercury in its pure state, which has to be separated from the sulphur. […] The wolf stands for mercurous chloride, otherwise known as calomel (which means “beautiful black” in Greek). The stomach of the wolf is the alchemist’s oven in which the cinnabar is transformed into mercury. (pp. 91-92)

However, Eco points out a flaw in this theory, which was identified by Valentina Pisanty. Why is Red Riding Hood still wearing a red hood instead of silver hood when she comes out of the beast’s belly?

1Eliot’s collection of essays, published in 1922, was titled The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism.

Sensuality in Thomas Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)

“The superiority of intellectual to sensual pleasures consists rather in their filling up more time, in their having a larger range, and in their being less liable to satiety, than in their being more real and essential.”

“Intemperance in every enjoyment defeats its own purpose. A walk in the finest day through the most beautiful country, if pursued too far, ends in pain and fatigue. The most wholesome and invigorating food, eaten with an unrestrained appetite, produces weakness instead of strength. Even intellectual pleasures, though certainly less liable than others to satiety, pursued with too little intermission, debilitate the body, and impair the vigour of the mind. To argue against the reality of these pleasures from their abuse seems to be hardly just. Morality, according to Mr Godwin, is a calculation of consequences, or, as Archdeacon Paley very justly expresses it, the will of God, as collected from general expediency. According to either of these definitions, a sensual pleasure not attended with the probability of unhappy consequences does not offend against the laws of morality, and if it be pursued with such a degree of temperance as to leave the most ample room for intellectual attainments, it must undoubtedly add to the sum of pleasurable sensations in life. Virtuous love, exalted by friendship, seems to be that sort of mixture of sensual and intellectual enjoyment particularly suited to the nature of man, and most powerfully calculated to awaken the sympathies of the soul, and produce the most exquisite gratifications.”

“Urged by the passion of love, men have been driven into acts highly prejudicial to the general interests of society, but probably they would have found no difficulty in resisting the temptation, had it appeared in the form of a woman with no other attractions whatever but her sex. To strip sensual pleasures of all their adjuncts, in order to prove their inferiority, is to deprive a magnet of some of its most essential causes of attraction, and then to say that it is weak and inefficient.”

“In the pursuit of every enjoyment, whether sensual or intellectual, reason, that faculty which enables us to calculate consequences, is the proper corrective and guide. It is probable therefore that improved reason will always tend to prevent the abuse of sensual pleasures, though it by no means follows that it will extinguish them.”

“It is a truth, which history I am afraid makes too clear, that some men of the highest mental powers have been addicted not only to a moderate, but even to an immoderate indulgence in the pleasures of sensual love.”

“All that I can say is, that the wisest and best men in all ages had agreed in giving the preference, very greatly, to the pleasures of intellect; and that my own experience completely confirmed the truth of their decisions; that I had found sensual pleasures vain, transient, and continually attended with tedium and disgust; but that intellectual pleasures appeared to me ever fresh and young, filled up all my hours satisfactorily, gave a new zest to life, and diffused a lasting serenity over my mind. If he believe me, it can only be from respect and veneration for my authority. “

“At some future time perhaps, real satiety of sensual pleasures, or some accidental impressions that awakened the energies of his mind, might effect that, in a month, which the most patient and able expostulations might be incapable of effecting in forty years.”

About parrots – “Him choke from prejudice”

  • See this post about a famous parrot in the literary world.
  • In Paul West’s Lord Byron’s Doctor (1989), J. W. Polidori writes, ‘He [Byron] never actually said Pretty Polly, but it was in his eye, all right, and I suppose I was a bit of a parrot when around him, aping his this and that or pretending that I, like he, could fall upon a chambermaid in some foreign town like a thunderbolt, after having borne the horn to do it with all the way from London, by stagecoach, packet, coach again.’ (p. 3)
  • Jean Rhys gives Antoinette Mason a parrot.
  • ‘If she [Ellen Terry] was shipwrecked abroad and returned to find George remarried, she would dance the sailor’s hornpipe and set up house with a parrot.’ –Lynne Truss’s Tennyson’s Gift (1996)
  • The tragic fate of the parrot in Derek Walcott’s play Pantomime (155-156):
(…JACKSON returns dressed as Crusoe–goatskin hat, open umbrella…. He throws something across the room to HARRY‘s feet. The dead parrot, in a carry-away box. HARRYopens it)
One parrot, to go! Or you eating it here?
You son of a bitch.
(HARRY picks up the parrot and hurls it into the sea)
First bath in five years.
(JACKSON moves toward the table, very calmly)
You’re a bloody savage. Why’d you strangle him?
(As Friday)
Me na strangle him, bwana. Him choke from prejudice.
Prejudice? A bloody parrot. The bloody thing can’t reason.
(Pause. They stare at each other. HARRY crouches, titles his head, shifts on his perch, flutters his wings like the parrot, squawks)
Heinegger. Heinegger…. You people create nothing. You imitate everything. It’s all been done before, you see, Jackson. The parrot. Think that’s something? It’s from The Seagull. It’s from Miss Julie. You can’t ever be original, boy. That’s the trouble with shadows, right? They can’t think for themselves…. So you take it out on a parrot. Is that one of your African sacrifices, eh?
  • The parrot in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe:
The map below, published in Serious Reflections during the Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe: With his Vision of the Angelick World (London, 1720), depicts “Robinson Crusoe’s Island”. The parrot which takes the central place is speaking the words, “Poor Robinson Cruso”.
Bob W. said: After Monty Python, it is difficult to take one’s dead parrots seriously.
I said: Thank you, Bob, for reminding me of that sketch!

I particularly liked the various expressions used to refer to the state of the parrot: ‘It’s not pining, it’s passed on. This parrot is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.’
Mark said: Mark said: Would that be the South American macaw, or the African grey variety? (The latter are much better talkers.) ;)

Recollection 22 – Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot

Here are some quotes from Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot which I found particularly interesting.
  • Isn’t the most reliable form of pleasure, Flaubert implies, the pleasure of anticipation? Who needs to burst into fulfilment’s desolate attic? p. 4
  • When I was a medical student some pranksters at an end-of-term dance released into the hall a piglet which had been smeared with grease. It squirmed between legs, evaded capture, squealed a lot. People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process. The past often seems to behave like that piglet. p. 5
  • Is the writer much more than a sophisticated parrot? p. 10
  • You can define a net in one of two ways, depending on your point of view. Normally, you would say that it is a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net as a jocular lexicographer once did: he called it a collection of holes tied together with string. p. 35
  • ‘Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.’ – Madame Bovary p. 51
  • … he reminds her that we are all caged birds, and that life weighs the heaviest on those with the largest wings. p. 61
  • I’d ban coincidences, if I were a dictator of fiction. p. 71
  • When you’re young you prefer the vulgar months, the fullness of the seasons. As you grow older you learn to like the in-between times, the months that can’t make up their minds. Perhaps it’s a way of admitting that things can’t ever bear the same certainty again. p. 91
  • Books are not life, however much we might prefer it if they were. p. 95
  • You can have your cake and eat it; the only trouble is, you get fat. p. 97
  • How do we seize the past? How do we seize the foreign past? We read, we learn, we ask, we remember, we are humble; and then a casual detail shifts everything. p. 100
  • Do you know what Nabokov said about adultery in his lecture on Madame Bovary? He said it was ‘a most conventional way to rise above the conventional’. p. 102
  • Style does arise from subject-matter. p. 107
  • ‘Don’t look at me, that’s misleading. If you want to know what I’m like, wait until we’re in a tunnel, and then study my reflection in the window.’ p. 108
  • Some Italian once wrote that critic secretly wants to kill the writer. Is that true? Up to a point. We all hate golden eggs. Bloody golden eggs again, you can hear the critics mutter as a good novelist produces yet another good novel; haven’t we had enough omelettes this year? p. 110
  • The past is a distant, receding coastline, and we are all in the same boat. Along the stern rail there is a line of telescopes; each brings the shore into focus at a given distance. If the boat is becalmed, one of the telescopes will be in continual use; it will seem to tell the whole, the unchanging truth. But this is an illusion; and as the boat sets off again, we return to our normal activity: scurrying from one telescope to another, seeing the sharpness fade in one, waiting for the blur to clear in another. And when the blur does clear, we imagine that we have made it do so all by ourselves. p. 114
  • Everything confuses. Directness also confuses. p. 116
  • Soft cheeses collapse, firm cheeses indurate. Both go mouldy. p. 117
  • ‘Superior to everything is — Art. A book of poetry is preferable to a railway’ –Intimate Notebook, 1840. p. 124
  • A pier is a disappointed bridge; yet stare at it for long enough and you can dream it to the other side of the Channel. p. 141
  • But women scheme when they are weak, they lie out of fear. Men scheme when they are strong, they lie out of arrogance. p. 162
  • He didn’t really like travel, of course. He liked the idea of travel, and the memory of travel, but not travel itself. p. 168
  • You do not dismiss love the way you dismiss your hairdresser. p. 169
  • They are scarcely adult, some men: they wish women understand them, and to that end they tell them all their secrets; and then, when they are properly understood, they hate their women for understanding them. p. 175
  • He said that there were three preconditions for happiness – stupidity, selfishness and good health. p. 175
  • True love can survive absence, death and infidelity, he once told me; true lovers can go ten years without meeting. p. 175
  • ‘Pride is one thing: a wild beast which lives in caves and roams the desert; Vanity, on the other hand, is a parrot which hops from branch to branch and chatters away in full view.’ p. 180
  • ‘It is better to waste your old age than to do nothing about it.’ p. 185
    Necessary in the nineteenth century for the contraction of syphilis, without which no one could claim genius. Wearers of the red badge of courage include Flaubert, Daudet, Maupassant, Jules de Goncourt, Baudelaire, etc. Were there any writers unafflicted by it? If so, they were probably homosexual. p. 188
  • Who needs whom more: the disciple the master, or the master the disciple? p. 189
  • … speed, of course, is always exaggerated by those standing still. p. 193
  • How happy is happy enough? It sounds like a grammatical mistake – happy enough, like rather unique – but it answers the need for a phrase. p. 197
  • Books are where things are explained to you; life is where things aren’t. I’m not surprised some people prefer books. Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own. p. 201
  • Lovers are like Siamese twins, two bodies with a single soul; but if one dies before the other, the survivor has a corpse to lug around. p. 202
  • ‘Criticism occupies the lowest rung in the hierarchy of literature: as regards form, almost always, and as regards moral worth, incontestably. It’s lower even than rhyming games and acoustics, which at least demand a modicum of invention.’ — Letter to Louise Colet, June 28th, 1853. p. 207
  • Why are they so keen to turn learning into a game? They love to make it childish, even for adults. Especially for adults. p. 228


JM said: Whoa nelly! That’s a whole whack of quotes. I got about halfway and then had to stop – here – phew! – for a breather. Loved the writer as glorified parrot line. Sophisticated. Whatever. Ditto most all the others, especially the one about anticipation.

Particularly connected to my soul was the notion of how with age we come to love the in-between times. Those fuzzy not quite fall, nearly winter times, in particular for this sweater wearing chicken. I feel the same way about actors these days, finding myself so much more drawn to the “second banana” actors, the character actors in films, the bit part players, the journeymen workers (ie. the British actors in American films) rather than the big name stars.
Webmaster said: I found the three preconditions to true happiness dead on. Explains why I am happy at least.
Yamabuki said: “When you’re young you prefer the vulgar months, the fullness of the seasons. As you grow older you learn to like the in-between times, the months that can’t make up their minds. Perhaps it’s a way of admitting that things can’t ever bear the same certainty again.” p. 91 Julian Barnes’ “Flaubert’s Parrot”
When I was young
I knew little or nothing
I hardly even knew
That I knew nothing
I did know
That I loved Chocolate
And looking at the Moon
Late at night
Now that I’m older
I know better
How little I really know
And how little it matters
When I look at the Moon
I feel her love
Shining down on me
And that’s

On largeness and smallness

Not entirely true.

It seems to me that not only is largeness itself never willing to be large and small at the same time, but also that the largeness in us never admits the small, nor is it willing to be overtopped. Rather, one of the two things must happen: either it must retreat and get out of the way, when its opposite, the small, advances towards it; or else, upon that opposite’s advance, it must perish. But what it is not willing to do is to abide and admit smallness, and thus be other than what it was. Thus I, having admitted and abided smallness, am still what I am, this same individual, only small; whereas the large in us, while being large, can’t endure to be small. And similarly, the small that’s in us is not willing ever to come to be, or to be, large. Nor will any other of the opposites, while still being what it was, at the same time come to be, and be, its own opposite. If that befalls it, either it goes away or it perishes.

-Plato, Phaedo, p. 102d

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.