By Anne Matthews
December 1, 2010
Nobody ever forgets where he buried the hatchet.
—Kin Hubbard (1868–1930), American cartoonist
He hid his face in his hands. “Oh no, forgive me! And yet . . . today . . . some peculiar force drove me to you! Oh, why struggle against Fate . . . why resist the angels smiling?” It was the first time that Emma had ever heard such things said to her; and her vanity, like a body unclenching in a steam-bath, melted open, softly and fully, to the warm touch of his words. . . . Here Rodolphe paused to think up some good excuse. —What if I told her that my money was gone? Ah!
—Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, 1857
At supper my wife and I had a dispute about some trifle. . . . I started up and threw an egg in the fire and some beer after it. My inclination was to break and destroy everything. But I checked it. How curious is it that the thinking principle can speculate in the very instant of anger. My wife soon made up our difference. But I begged of her to be more attentive again.
—James Boswell, December 9, 1775
Two Union brigades were drawn up in double ranks facing each other on opposite sides of the street, leaving space for the Southerners to pass between. The long blue lines were dressed and straight, the troops in full kit, bayonets fixed, and standing at attention. . . . [Maine’s General Joshua] Chamberlain gave a brief order and a bugle sounded. Instantly the Union line from right to left, regiment by regiment in succession, shifted from order arms to carry arms, the marching salute. Hearing the familiar snap and rattle of the muskets, [General] Gordon . . . turned and ordered each Confederate brigade to march past the Union troops at carry arms, honor answering honor, a soldier’s mutual salutation and farewell.
—Jean Edward Smith, Grant, 2001
[N]ow the talk is truly between Eve and Eve. Begone, Adam, you are not wanted here. Ricardo Reis, reading, not reading, came across a fishwife on the page, capitalized, O Fishwife, pass, I beseech you pass, flower of the race. Lord do not forgive them, for they know exactly what they are doing.
—José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, 1986
Absolute virtue is impossible and the republic of forgiveness leads, with implacable logic, to the republic of the guillotine.
—Albert Camus, The Rebel, 1951
Behavioral data showed that both the perpetrator’s dishonesty and the seriousness of the scenario decreased the subjects’ willingness to forgive . . . findings suggest that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex plays a key role in the forgiveness of moral transgressions involving deception.
—A. Hayashi et al. “Neural correlates of forgiveness for moral transgressions involving deception ,” Brain Research, May 2010
The wounded limped past the screams, and Mr. Tanimoto ran past them. As a Christian he was filled with compassion for those who were trapped, and as a Japanese he was overwhelmed by the shame of being unhurt, and he prayed as he ran, “God . . . take them out of the fire.” . . . He lifted the [charred corpses] away from the boat, and as he did so, he experienced such horror at disturbing the dead—preventing them, he momentarily felt, from launching their craft and going on their ghostly way—that he said out loud, “Please forgive me for taking this boat. I must use it for others, who are alive.”
—John Hersey, Hiroshima, 1946
War is a human institution, and an instinct as deep as love. . . . War’s crimes are unforgivable; yet war’s crimes may be forgiven.
—Samuel Hynes, The Soldier’s Tale: Bearing Witness to a Modern War, 1997
Nor is renewal to be found in mere self-flagellation; the attack on error must go beyond bitterness over lost myths, our lost (rather, our imagined) selves. We must not, even, despise Nixon, but forgive him. . . . As Murray Kempton says, the final test of maturity is the forgiveness of one’s elders—
—Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes, 1970
Forgive many things in others; nothing in yourself.
—Decimus Magnus Ausonius (Gaul, 310–395 a.d.)
The dark has its own light
A son has many fathers.
Stand by a slow stream:
Hear the sigh of what is.
Be a pleased rock
On a plain day.
—Theodore Roethke, “O, Thou Opening, O,” The Waking, 1953
Yet the human failings Mother could least forgive in other people, she regarded with only tenderness in him. . . . I have seen photographs he took of [Grandmother]—tintypes; it’s clear that he took them with great care to show how beautiful he found her. In one she is standing up behind a chair, with her long hands crossed at the wrist over the back of it.
—Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings, 1983
[W]e are awakening the dead, the tortured, throwing them in the faces of the living, and shouting: you don’t have the right to remain calm, ask forgiveness. Given that logic, there are only rats and saints. . . . Europe has given birth to monsters, but at the same time it has given birth to theories that make it possible to understand and destroy these monsters . . . like a jailer who throws you into prison and slips you the keys to your cell.
—Pascal Bruckner, The Tyranny of Guilt, 2010
One day at a conference we were singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and we came across the part that goes: “Land where our fathers died / Land of the Pilgrims’ pride.” Some of us broke out laughing when we realized that our fathers undoubtedly died trying to keep those Pilgrims from stealing our land.
—Vine Deloria Jr. (Standing Rock Sioux), Custer Died For Your Sins, 1969
Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remember’d.
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet, act 3, scene 1
Anne Matthews collects the quotations for Commonplace Book and is a contributing editor of The American Scholar.
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