His eyes gleamed with excitement and pleasure if a student said anything remotely pertinent or intelligent; but if the student was altogether wrong, as the six of us in his seminar often were, he flinched and scowled as if a bug were flying at his face, or he gazed out a window unhappily, or refilled his pipe, or wordlessly cadged a cigarette from one of us smokers, and hardly even pretended to listen. He was the least polished of all my college teachers, and yet he had something that the other teachers didn’t have: he felt for literature the kind of headlong love and gratitude that a born-again Christian feels for Jesus. His highest praise for a piece of writing was ‘It’s crazy!’ His yellowed, disintegrating copies of German prose masterworks were like missionary Bibles. On page after page, each sentence was underscored or annotated in Avery’s microscopic handwriting, illuminated with the cumulative appreciations of fifteen or twenty rereadings. His paperbacks were at once low-priced, high-acid crapola and the most precious of relics – moving testaments to how full of significance every line in them could be to a student of their mysteries, as every leaf and sparrow in Creation sings of God to the believer.
Jonathan Franzen. The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. Fourth Estate, 2006.
Our ability to measure and apportion time affords an almost endless source of comfort.
‘Synchronize watches at oh six hundred,’ says the infantry captain, and each of his huddled lieutenants finds a respite from fear in the act of bringing two tiny pointers into jeweled alignment while tons of heavy artillery go fluttering overhead: the prosaic, civilian-looking dial of the watch has restored, however briefly, an illusion of personal control. Good, it counsels, looking tidily up from the hairs and veins of each terribly vulnerable wrist; fine: so far, everything’s happening right on time.
‘I’m afraid I’m booked solid through the end of the month,’ says the executive, voluptuously nestling the phone at his cheek as he thumbs the leaves of his appointment calendar, and his mouth and eyes at that moment betray a sense of deep security. The crisp, plentiful, day-sized pages before him prove that nothing unforeseen, no calamity of chance or fate can overtake him between now and the end of the month. Ruin and pestilence have been held at bay, and death itself will have to wait; he is booked solid.
Richard Yates. Revolutionary Road. Little, Brown, 1961.
It must be told that my second work day is a bust as far as getting into the writing. I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one. It is as though the words were not only indelible but that they spread out like dye in water and color everything around them. A strange and mystic business, writing. Almost no progress has taken place since it was invented. The Book of the Dead is as good and as highly developed as anything in the 20th century and much better than most. And yet in spite of this lack of a continuing excellence, hundreds of thousands of people are in my shoes – praying feverishly for relief from their word pangs.
John Steinbeck. Journal entry dated February 13 1951. Reproduced in Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. Pan Books, 1972.
Kiddies were streaming onto the floor from every portal, Bright-Eyed (what a fucking irritating youth-congratulating name for a band, Katz thought) and bushless-tailed. His feeling of having crashed did not consist of envy, exactly, or even entirely of having outlived himself. It was more like despair at the world’s splinteredness. The nation was fighting ugly ground wars in two countries, the planet was heating up like a toaster oven, and here at the 9:30, all around him, were hundreds of kids [...] with their sweet yearnings, their innocent entitlement – to what? To emotion. To unadulterated worship of a superspecial band. To being left to themselves to ritually repudiate, for an hour or two on a Saturday night, the cynicism and anger of their elders. They seemed [...] to bear malice toward nobody. Katz could see it in their clothing, which bespoke none of the rage and disaffection of the crowds he’d been part of as a youngster. They gathered not in anger but in celebration of their having found, as a generation, a gentler and more respectful way of being. A way, not incidentally, more in harmony with consuming. And so said to him: die.
Oberst took the stage alone, wearing a powder-blue tuxedo, strapped on an acoustic, and crooned a couple of lengthy solo numbers. He was the real deal, a boy genius, and thus all the more insufferable to Katz. His Tortured Soulful Artist shtick, his self-indulgence in pushing his songs past their natural limits of endurance, his artful crimes against pop convention: he was performing sincerity, and when the performance threatened to give sincerity the lie, he performed his sincere anguish over the difficulty of sincerity.
Jonathan Franzen. Freedom. Fourth Estate, 2010.
Whom do I see, here? I see students and adults. I see parents, obvious parents, the ones with name tags. I watch the students, and they watch back. Ability to Handle Oneself, elaborate defense structures, exit their eyes and begin to assemble on the ground before them. But the eyes and faces are as always left bare. In the girls’ faces I see softness, beauty, the shiny and relaxed eyes of wealth, and the vital capacity for creating problems where none exist. For some reason I see these girls also older, pale television ghosts flickering beside the originals: middle-aged women, with bright-red fingernails and deeply-tanned, hard, seamed faces, sprayed hair shaped by the professional fingers of men with French names; and eyes, eyes that will stare without pity or doubt over salted tequila rims at the glare of the summer sun off the country club pool. The structures spread out, grow, wave at me with the epileptic flutter of the film-in-reverse. The boys are different, appropriately, from the girls. From each other. I see blond heads and lean jaws and bow-legged swaggers and biceps with veins in them. I see so many calm, impassive, or cheerful faces, faces at peace, for now and always, with the context of their own appearance and being, that sort of long-term peace and smooth acquaintance with invariable destiny that renders the faces bloodlessly pastable onto cut-outs of corporate directors in oak-lined boardrooms, professors with plaid ties and leather patches at the elbows of their sports jackets, doctors on bright putting greens with heavy gold shock-resistant watches at their wrists and tiny beepers at their belts, black-jacketed soldiers efficiently bayoneting the infirm. I see Best faces, faces I remember well. Faces whose owners are going to be the Very Best.
David Foster Wallace. The Broom of the System. Viking Penguin, 1987.
In the eighteenth century [...] ‘an ordinary’ was a meal that was equivalent to the French term plat de jour (the dish of the day). So, in Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling from 1771, two well-to-do men are walking by a park when ‘they observed a board hung out of a window, signifying, “An excellent ORDINARY on Saturdays and Sundays.” It happened to be Saturday and the table was covered for the purpose’ [...]. There is no sense that the two men are going for the cheap or the measly option here. An ordinary in this sense was the meal on which most care and attention was lavished, that used the freshest produce and the best cuts of meat. It was also what you might eat as a regular customer of the café or restaurant. An “ordinary” suggests both the care and effort of the cook or chef and a community of diners who know how to choose the best option because they respect the decisions and skills of their patron.
Ben Highmore. Ordinary Lives: Studies in the Everyday. Routledge, 2011.
…these short cuts are only permissible because one is and feels at home, among the family, where ceremony would be an affectation. For example, to save washing up, the dessert may be handed out on improvised plates torn from the cake-box (with a joke about ‘taking the liberty’, to mark the transgression, and the neighbour invited in for a meal will also receive his piece of cardboard (offering a plate would exclude him) as a sign of familiarity. Similarly, the plates are not changed between dishes. The soup plate, wiped with bread, can be used right through the meal. The hostess will certainly offer to ‘change the plates’, pushing back her chair with one hand and reaching with the other for the plate next to her, but everyone will protest (‘It all gets mixed up inside you’) and if she were to insist it would look as if she wanted to show off her crockery (which she is allowed to if it is a new present) or to treat her guests as strangers, as is sometimes deliberately done to intruders or ‘scroungers’ who never return the invitation.
Pierre Bourdieu. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Routledge, 1984.