At Vanda’s insistence we were even able to get an umbrella in the first row. In the shade, stretched out in the chairs facing the drowsy sea, my wife read books on scientific predictions, telling me, now and then, about the subatomic world or outer space, while I read novels and poems that I shared with her softly from time to time, not so much to read them to her but to grant myself further pleasure. After dinner, on the terrace, we both often happened to see the wake of a falling star at the same moment, and this delighted us. We admired the night sky, the fragrance of the air, and by midweek not only that beach, that sea, but the entire planet seemed a miracle. In the days that remained I felt quite wonderful. I savored the fortune of being, for a good seventy-four years, a happy transmutation of the sidereal substance that roils in the furnace of the universe, a fragment of living thinking matter, without too many aches and pains to boot, and barely scathed, purely by chance, by misfortune. The only bother was the mosquitoes that bit at night, me mostly, leaving Vanda in peace, so much so that she claimed there weren’t any. Apart from that, how wonderful it was to live, to have lived. I marveled at my own optimism, a sentiment I have little calling for.pg. 52, Ties
Paper, I understand, was invented by the Chinese; but Western paper is to us no more than something to be used, while the texture of Chinese paper and Japanese paper gives us a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose. Even the same white could as well be one color for Western paper and another for our own. Western paper turns away the light, while our paper seems to take it in, to envelop it gently, like the soft surface of a first snowfall. It gives off no sound when it is crumpled or folded, it is quiet and pliant to the touch as the leaf of a tree.pgs. 9-10, In Praise of Shadows
As a general matter we find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter. The Westerner uses silver and steel and nickel tableware, and polishes it to a fine brilliance, but we object to the practice. While we do sometimes indeed use silver for teakettles, decanters, or sake cups, we prefer not to polish it. On the contrary, we begin to enjoy it only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina. Almost every household has had to scold an insensitive maid who has polished away the tarnish so patiently awaited for.
Nietzsche foresaw a hundred years ago the plight of the cultivated mind, whom he embodied in the philosopher:
The spread of the towering sciences has grown enormous and with it the likelihood that the philosopher will grow tired, even as a learner, and will take refuge somewhere and specialize; so that he will no longer reach his proper height – his superspection, circumspection, and “despection”. Or he climbs aloft too late, when the best of his maturity and strength are gone, or when he is on the downgrade, coarsened and spoiled; so that his view of the world, his general estimate of things, is no longer of much importance. It is no doubt his intellectual conscience that makes him hesitate to be a dilettante, a centipede, a creature with a thousand antennas.
No scheme lasts forever. There will arise a generation whose “general estimate of things” will regain importance, whose intellectual conscience will impel them in the other direction, toward sensing the world through a thousand antennas. For the bearers of culture continue to be born; the desire for is innate. To reincarnate Nietzsche’s philosopher, we need only look to the touching figure of the water boy who rowed Dr. Johnson and Boswell down the Thames to Greenwich. The friends were discussing the shaping influence of classical culture. Boswell thought people got on very well without it. Johnson partly agreed. “For instance,” he said, “this boy rows us as well without learning as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts, who were the first sailors.” Then he interrupted himself and called to the boy: “What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?” “Sir,” said the boy, “I would give what I have.”pg. 22, The Culture We Deserve
Then, she did not hear them any more. What a glare there was in the room. She hated blinds pulled up to the top at any time, but in the morning it was intolerable. She turned over to the wall and idly, with one finger, she traced a poppy on the wallpaper with a leaf and stem and a fat bursting bud. In the quiet, and under her tracing finger, the poppy seemed to come alive. She could feel the sticky, silky petals, the stem, hairy like a gooseberry skin, the rough leaf and the tight glazed bud. Things had a habit of coming alive like that. Only only large substantial things like furniture, but curtains and the patterns of stuffs and fringes of quilts and cushions. How often she had seen the tassel priests attending… For there were some tassels that did not dance at all but walked stately, bent forward as if praying or chanting. How often the medicine bottles had turned into a row of little men with brown top-hats on; and the washstand jug had a way of sitting in the basin like a fat bird in a round nest.pg. 66, Prelude, Stories
Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at – nothing – at nothing, simply.
What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss – absolute bliss! – as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe?…
Oh, is there no way you can express it without being “drunk and disorderly?” How idiotic civilization is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?pg. 143, Bliss, Stories
He was very busy anyway, disoriented and discombobulated, having typical adolescent experiences without knowing they were typical. Making long speeches to distracted eighteen-year-olds who were thoroughly occupied washing down fish sticks with Pepsi, feeling that they, despite their inattention, were understanding every word. Watching them stand up and wander off as though he did not exist. The invisible man. He was not used to seeing the faintest trace of comprehension dawn on the face of anyone other than his mother, Karen, Meg, the occasional teacher, and other predisposed to be nice to him – mostly Meg – so he had naturally assumed that anyone smart enough to understand him would find him fascinating. It was a shock to discover that suburban kids could follow his argumentation and find it hopelessly dull. “Pale Fire is so overwritten,” they would say, yawning. He began to talk less, shortening his speeches to make them more efficient and effective.pgs. 163-164, Mislaid
He sighed again. “Here is my final offer, Tiffany. Stop following orders. Do what you want. Work selfishly. Without the experience of control, you will never have the experience of creativity. Stop giving yourself away, and you will have more to offer than your body and soul. Keep them and cultivate them. Learn, learn, and once again learn!” He said that last bit in Russian, quoting Lenin: Uchit se, uchit se, uchit se. I said I would take it under advisement.
–pg. 192, The WallcreeperÂ
“Women are all the same,” he said. “Inscrutable guardians of inexpressible passions, and sentimental about money.” -pg. 103, The WallcreeperÂ
Marriage is hard work at any age; that platitude is, sadly, as true as it is hackneyed. But now that I’m old enough to accumulate my own stack of holiday cards every year, some of the from the Jackie Harrises of the world, who were reckless enough to get married before the age of thirty but often seem to beam the brightest in their family photos (probably because they also had kids earlier and those kids are now sentient beings who will soon be capable of driving themselves to band practice), I’ve observed something that probably would have surprised my mother: The young are often harder workers – or at least better team players – in the quarry that is marriage. They do not, as I did, bring a mortgage and mid-stage career and an assemblage of tastes and opinions and biases and assumptions formed over more than three decades. They bring only a toothbrush. Whatever else the need, they’ll acquire as a couple. Whatever kind of people they turn out to be, they’ll turn into under the heady influence of the other. – pgs. 68-69, TheÂ Best Possible Experience
Flags the color of poppy petals flutter above the crowds. Reality is fighting back. But its blazing suns don’t frighten the newly ascendant underground. Sleepers’ eyes are shielded by eyelids. Yesterday’s utopia has become today’s science. We’ll break the backs of facts. We’ll rout their status quos: you’ll see those status quos turn tail and run. If an ‘I’ should rise up against our ‘we’, we’ll hurl him down a well of nightmares headfirst. We’ll hide the sun behind black blots, we’ll plunge the whole world into a deep, static slumber. We’ll put even the idea of waking to sleep, and it is resists, we’ll gouge out its eyes.Â – pg. 100,Â The Branch Line
And then that warm wind, like a wing against one’s soul.Â – pg. 89,Â The Branch Line
Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.
As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth’s immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow. – First Sight, Philip Larkin