Commonplace Book - Spring 2007

Defeat

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By André Bernard

March 1, 2007


 

A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity. In this sphere, wisdom, which may be defined as the exercise of judgment acting on experience, common sense and available information, is less operative and more frustrated than it should be. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?

—Barbara Tuchman, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, 1984


But Anthony put a stop to [Cleopatra’s] lamentation and asked for a drink of wine. Perhaps he was thirsty; perhaps he thought it would make a quicker release. When he had drunk it, he gave her his advice: to see to the security of her own affairs if she could do so honorably, and to trust Proculeius especially among Caesar’s friends; and not to grieve for him at this last change, but to reckon him happy for all the blessings he had enjoyed; he had been a famous man, and a man of great power; and now he had been defeated without disgrace by a fellow Roman.

—Plutarch, b. 46 A.D.


Raphus cucullatushad become rare unto death. But this one flesh-and-blood individual still lived. Imagine that she was thirty years old, or thirty-five, an ancient age for most sorts of bird but not impossible for a member of such a large-bodied species. She no longer ran, she waddled. Lately she was going blind. Her digestive system was balky. In the dark of an early morning in 1667, say, during a rainstorm, she took cover beneath a cold stone ledge at the base of one of the Black River cliffs. She drew her head down against her body, fluffed her feathers for warmth, squinted in patient misery. She waited. She didn’t know it, nor did anyone else, but she was the only dodo on Earth. When the storm passed, she never opened her eyes. This is extinction.

—David Quammen, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, 1996


The United States might leave Vietnam, but the Vietnam War would never leave the United States. The soldiers would bring it back with them like an addiction. The civilians may neglect or try to ignore it, but those who have seen combat must find a reason for that killing; they must put it in some relation to their normal experience and to their role as citizens.

—Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam, 1972


Should the vertebrates fail to intimidate me into ceding my garden to the forest, a dozen different insect species, each with its own distinctive preferences, tactics, and disguises, will march on my plants in a series of waves beginning in April and not relenting till frost. First the cutworms, who saw off the seedlings at ground level. Then the aphids, specs of pale green that cluster on the undersides of leaves, sucking the vital fluids from young plants until they turn a last-gasp yellow. Next come the loathsome slugs: naked bullets of flesh—evicted snails—that hide from the light of day, emerging at sunset to cruise the garden along their own avenues of slime. The cabbage loopers are the paratroopers of the vegetable patch: their eggs are dropped on the cole crops by troop transports disguised as innocuous white butterflies. Last to arrive is the vast and far-flung beetle family—Colorado potato beetles, blister beetles, flea beetles, bean leaf beetles, cucumber beetles, Japanese beetles, Mexican bean beetles—who mount a massive airborne invasion beginning in midsummer.

—Michael Pollan, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, 1991


Who would not have jumped for joy, in 1940, at the thought of seeing SS officers kicked and humiliated? But when the thing becomes possible, it is merely pathetic and disgusting. It is said that when Mussolini’s corpse was exhibited in public, an old woman drew a revolver and fired five shots into it, exclaiming, “Those are for my five sons!” It is the kind of story that the newspapers make up, but it might be true. I wonder how much satisfaction she got out of those five shots, which, doubtless, she had dreamed years earlier of firing. The condition of her being able to get close enough to Mussolini to shoot at him was that he should be a corpse.

—George Orwell, “Revenge Is Sour,” November 9, 1945


I should repel my readers, from a mere incapacity of believing me, were I to tell them what tobacco has been to me, the drudging service which I have paid, the slavery which I have vowed to it. Here, when I have resolved to quit it, a feeling as of ingratitude has started up; how it has put on personal claims, and made the demands of a friend upon me. . . . How a pipe was ever in my midnight path before me, till the vision forced me to realise it,—how then its ascending vapours curled, its fragrance lulled, and the thousand delicious ministerings conversant about it, employing every faculty, extracted the sense of pain. How from illuminating it came to darken, from a quick solace it turned to a negative relief, thence to a restlessness and dissatisfaction, thence to a positive misery. How, even now, when the whole secret stands confessed in all its dreadful truth before me, I feel myself linked to it beyond the power of revocation.

—Charles Lamb, “Confessions of a Drunkard,” in The Last Essays of Elia, 1833


“Your name?” asks Victor. The man now has his hand to his tie, at which Victor has been looking all the while. Victor repeats the name to his assistant, lisping it slowly. The assistant looks at the list and finds no such name. “You have no reservation?” says Victor now, with the tone in which he might say, “Where did you steal that watch?” “Reservation?” says the man. “Yes, reservation,” answers Victor. . . . An invisible wrestling match starts, the man pushing back the lapels of his coat, putting his hands in all of his pockets and taking them out again, looking into the faces of bystanders for support and pointing at empty tables inside the room. In such cases Victor takes the list of reservations from his assistant, drums on the edge of it with the end of his golden pencil and looks past the man’s ear into faraway space.

—Ludwig Bemelmans, La Bonne Table, 1964


Every being, which during its natural lifetime produces several eggs or seeds, must suffer destruction during some period of its life, and during some season or occasional year, otherwise, on the principle of geometrical increase, its numbers would quickly become so inordinately great that no country could support the product. Hence, as more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life.

—Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1859


One of Longstreet’s Deep South veterans put it strongest, dropping back toward the tail of the column as he struggled to keep up, tattered and barefoot, yet still with some vestige of the raucous sense of humor that had brought him this far along the four-year road he had traveled. “My shoes are gone; my clothes are almost gone, I’m weary, I’m sick, I’m hungry. My family has been killed or scattered, and may now be wandering helpless and unprotected.” He shook his head. “I would die; yes, I would die willingly, he said, “because I love my country. But if this war is ever over, I’ll be damned if I ever love another country!”

—Shelby Foote, The Civil War: A Narrative: Red River to Appomattox, 1974


“This is a sharp medicine, but a sure remedy for all evils.”

—Sir Walter Raleigh, last words on the scaffold, October 29, 1618


The art of will-making chiefly consists in baffling the importunity of expectation.

—William Hazlitt, “On Will-Making,” in Table Talk, or, Original Essays on Men and Manners, 1821–2


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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