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.

John Steinbeck on writing

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.

What Richard Katz (one of Jonathan Franzen’s characters) sees when he goes to a Bright Eyes concert

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.

What Rick Vigorous (one of David Foster Wallace’s characters) sees when he visits his alma mater

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.