Commonplace Book - Winter 2005

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By André Bernard

December 1, 2004


 

 

I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believed in (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings), nor is humanity itself believ’d in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appalling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout.

—WALT WHITMAN
Democratic Vistas, 1871


[A] book is a friend whose face is constantly changing, but ever remaining a friend, and all the more because the change is in us, to whom the book is a mirror, reflecting our moods, hopes, joys, and sorrows, dies diem docet, one day teacheth another, and books are the friendly legionaries in this great advance; it is every man as he likes; so many men, so many minds; so many days, so many moods, and by the help of books, all tending to good purpose, though each is different, after its own manner.

— HOLBROOK JACKSON
The Anatomy of Bibliomania, 1932

For all its divine nature and immortality, the Church cannot entirely escape the universal necessity to which all organisms, no matter what their nature, are subject, the necessity of undergoing a periodic rejuvenation. After a youthful phase of expansion, every form of growth suffers a loss of tension and slackens off. This is in itself a sufficient explanation of the slowing-down the encyclicals complain of when they speak of these last centuries “in which faith has been growing cold.” The fact is Christianity has already been in existence for two thousand years, and the time has come (as it does for every other physical reality) when it needs to be rejuvenated by an injection of new elements. And where are we to find the principle of this rejuvenation? There is only one source, to my mind: the fiery source, newly tapped, of “humanization.”

—PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN
Christianity and Evolution, 1969


Darwin’s finches are not like Michelangelo’s Adam, who raises his finger languidly to meet the down-stretched finger of God: the first man, molded of clay, half-raised from earth, created in an instant. These birds are more like Michelangelo’s Prisoners, the famous statues he left half in and half out of the marble, so that looking at them today we can almost see and hear the sculptor’s chisel at work. The birds are alive and breathing, but they are unfinished; in the Galapagos the sculptor is still at
work, measurably and demonstrably.

—JONATHAN WEINER
The Beak of the Finch:
A Story of Evolution in Our Time, 1995


The sudden & mysterious disappearance of the ship was first discovered by the boat-steerer in the captain’s boat, and with a horror-struck countenance and voice, he suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, my God! Where is the ship?” Their operations upon this were instantly suspended, and a general cry of horror and despair burst from the lips of every man, as their looks were directed for her, in vain, over every part of the ocean. They immediately made all haste towards us. The captain’s boat was the first that reached us. He stopped about a boat’s length off, but had no power to utter a single syllable: he was so completely overpowered with the spectacle before him, that he sat down in his boat, pale and speechless. I could scarcely recognize his countenance, he appeared to be so much altered, awed, and overcome, with the oppression of his feelings, and the dreadful reality that lay before him. He was in a short time however enabled to address the inquiry to me, “My God, Mr. Chase, what is the matter?” I answered, “We have been stove by a whale.”

— OWEN CHASE
Narrative of the Most Extraordinary
and Distressing Shipwreck
of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket, 1821


The night before he passed away I stood on the sidewalk outside his apartment building and burst into tears. I was grieving in advance. I couldn’t bear to be without him. I still can’t. William Maxwell knew something about inconsolable grief. People hurried by on either side of me, but no one even glanced my way. It started to rain. The night opened its arms. New York City is a place where one can weep on the sidewalk in perfect privacy.

—EDWARD HIRSCH
“Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man,” in
A William Maxwell Portrait: Memories
and Appreciations, ed. Charles Baxter,
Michael Collier, and Edward Hirsch, 2004


Consider the cassoulet, a voluptuous monument to rustic tradition: The beans are cooked apart, their flavor enhanced by prolonged contact with aromatic vegetables, herbs, and spices; the mutton is cooked apart, slowly, the wine and other aromatic elements refining, enriching, or underlying its character; apart, the goose has long since been macerated in herbs and salt and subsequently preserved in its own fat; a good sausage is famously allied to witchcraft. All of these separate products are then combined; a bit of catalytic goose fat—with the aid of gelatinous pork rind—binds them together in a velvet texture, and a further slow cooking process intermingles all the flavors while a gratin, repeatedly basted, forms, is broken, reforms, is rebroken, a single new savor moving into dominance, cloaking, without destroying, the autonomy of the primitive members.

—RICHARD OLNEY
Simple French Food, 1974


At least once a year, I like to circumambulate the property, letting the lichen-covered wall be my guide. I want to see what is new—whether beavers have ventured upstream, whether the pitcher-plants are blooming, whether blue herons are back. I try to check up on a cohort of hemlock seedlings growing out of a rotten log, or a pine tree that ants and pileated woodpeckers have been gradually demolishing. Beyond the things that I half-expect to find are always a few surprises—a weasel popping out from under the wall, a beech struck by lightning. Long before I have completed the circuit, I am glad I took the time.

—ROGER SWAIN
Saving Graces: Sojourns
of a Backyard Biologist, 1991


Whether due to a naturally weak and incompetent physique or a mind which unduly tortures itself with the evidence of a none-too-smooth working of the creative impulse and its machinery, or whether I had merely had my fill of reportorial work as such and could endure no more, or whatever else might have been the cause, I finally determined to get out of the newspaper profession entirely, come what might and cost what it might, although just what I was to do once I was out and how I was to do it, I could not guess. As I have said, I had no trade or profession other than this, and the thought of editing or writing for anything save a newspaper was as far from me as engineering or painting. I did not think I could write anything beyond newspaper news items, and with this conclusion many will no doubt be glad to agree with me even unto this day.

—THEODORE DREISER
A Book About Myself: Newspaper Days, 1922


André Bernard was the longtime vice president and publisher at Harcourt Trade Publishers. He is now vice president and secretary of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.


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