Some sort of promise

I originally posted this quotation, which I love, the day after my daughter was born. I am re-posting it on her 7th birthday.

Where you went out the back door of that house there was a stone water trough in the weeds by the side of the house. A galvanized pipe come off the roof and the trough stayed pretty much full and I remember stoppin there one time and squattin down and lookin at it and I got to thinkin about it. I dont know how long it had been there. A hundred years. Two hundred. You could see the chisel marks in the stone. It was hewed out of solid rock and it was about six foot long and maybe a foot and a half wide and about that deep. Just chiseled out of the rock. And I got to thinkin about the man that done that. That country had not had a time of peace much of any length at all that I knew of. I’ve read a little of the history of it since and I aint sure it ever had one. But this man had set down with a hammer and chisel and carved out a stone water trough to last ten thousand years. Why was that? What was it that he had faith in? It wasnt that nothin would change. Which is what you might think, I suppose. He had to know bettern that. I’ve thought about it a good deal. I thought about it after I left there with that house blown to pieces. I’m goin to say that water trough is there yet. It would of took somethin to move it, I can tell you that. So I think about him settin there with his hammer and his chisel, maybe just a hour or two after supper, I dont know. And I have to say that the only thing I can think is that there was some sort of promise in his heart. And I dont have no intentions of carvin a stone water trough. But I would like to be able to make that kind of promise. I think that’s what I would like most of all.

Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men

Anthony Minghella on the moral responsibility of drama

…But these issues, along with the perennial concerns of style and mechanism and beauty in play-making, exercised me less than the attempts, however rudimentary, to create a world of feeling, to emulate what I have most responded to in the work of others: moments of insight which enlarge upon the narrow range of direct experience possible for any of us. And here, with the obligation to be accurate, is where drama acquires something like a moral responsibility. The world offered back to the audience, be it magical, funny, or tragic, had better be scrupulous: or else, like Flute’s Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we kiss the wall’s hole and not the lips at all. Which is why the theatre – of all the dramatic media least disposed to adornment or mediation, roughest, live, and the harshest arena of judgement – is finally the one I most respect, most care for, and most fear.

Anthony Minghella, in the introduction to his Plays: One. Methuen, 1992.

A comprehensively adequate interpretive account of a given work of art would take in, synoptically, its phenomenal effects (tone, style, theme, formal organization), locate it in a cultural context, explain that cultural context as a particular organization of the elements of human nature within a specific set of environmental conditions (including cultural traditions), register the responses of readers, describe the sociocultural, political, and psychological functions the work fulfills, locate those functions in relation to the evolved needs of human nature, and link the work comparatively with other artistic works, using a taxonomy of themes, formal elements, affective elements, and functions derived from a comprehensive model of human nature.

Joseph Carroll. Reading Human Nature: Literary Darwinism in Theory and Practice. SUNY Press, 2011.

All the little [children] in a half circle around Aunt Emily are getting an imprinting that will last for life. The sound of her voice reading will condition how they look upon themselves and the world. It will become part of the loved ambience of Battell Pond, a glint in the chromatic wonder of childhood. These small sensibilities will never lose the images of dark woods and bright lake. Nature to them will always be benificent and female.

We lived in our times, which were hard times. We had our interests, which were mainly literary and intellectual and only occasionally, inescapably, political. But what memory brings back from there is not politics, or the meagerness of living on a hundred and fifty dollars a month, or even the writing I was doing, but the details of friendship – parties, picnics, walks, midnight conversations, glimpses from the occasional unencumbered hours. Amicitia lasts better than res publica, and at least as well as ars poetica. Or so it seems now. What really illuminates those months is the faces of our friends.

Wallace Stegner. Crossing to Safety. Penguin, 2006.

Jonathan Franzen’s description of a memorable teacher of his

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.

As I draw up my schedule and fill in my diary for the new academic year, I am reminded of this passage from Revolutionary Road

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.