Commonplace Book - Autumn 2014


By Anne Matthews | August 28, 2014
Glenn Halog/Flickr
Glenn Halog/Flickr


I heard a slow scrape of his chair legs on the uncarpeted floor, and soon he appeared standing at the entrance of his hermitage.

“What is wanted?” said he mildly.

“The copies, the copies,” said I, hurriedly. “We are going to examine them. There”—and I held towards him the fourth quadruplicate.

“I would prefer not to,” he said, and gently disappeared behind the screen. 

—Herman Melville, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” 1853

One should be content to accept it without question, but one cannot look for long at Las Meninas without wanting to find out how it was done. I remember that when it hung in Geneva in 1939 I used to go very early in the morning, before the gallery was open, and try to stalk it, as if it really were alive. … I would start from as far away as I could, when the illusion was complete, and come gradually nearer, until suddenly what had been a hand, and a ribbon, and a piece of velvet, dissolved into a salad of beautiful brush strokes. I thought I might learn something if I could catch the moment at which this transformation took place, but it proved to be as elusive as the moment between waking and sleeping.

—Kenneth Clark, Looking at Pictures, 1960

He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted, “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and he did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

—John Updike, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” The New Yorker, 1960

It sounds very well to garden a “natural way.” You may see the natural way in any desert, any swamp, any leech-filled laurel hell. Defiance, on the other hand, is what makes gardeners.

—Henry Mitchell, The Essential Earthman, 1995

Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.

—Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” 1928

If one could find the irredeemable madness of America (for we are a nation where weeds will breed in the gilding tank) it was in those late afternoon race track faces coming into the neon lights of the pari-mutuel windows, or those early morning hollows in the eye of the soul in places like Vegas where the fevers of America go livid in the hum of the night, and Grandmother, the church-goer, orange hair burning bright now crooned over the One-Armed Bandit, pocketbook open, driving those half-dollars home, home to the slot.

“Madame, we are burning children in Vietnam.”

“Boy, you just go get yourself lost. Grandma’s about ready for a kiss from the jackpot.”

—Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night, 1968

Among all my experiences of work, none is so alien and inimical as that of a batch that spoils, whatever the cause, whether the damage is serious or slight, if you’re guilty or not. A fire or an explosion can be a much more destructive accident, even tragic, but it’s not disgraceful, like a gelatinization. The spoiled batch contains a mocking quality: a gesture of scorn, the derisiveness of soul-less things that ought to obey you and instead rise up, defying your prudence and foresight. The unique “molecule,” deformed but gigantic, that is born and dies in your hands is an obscene message and symbol: a symbol of other ugly things without reversal or remedy that obscure our future, of the prevalence of confusion over order, and of unseemly death over life.

—Primo Levi, A Tranquil Star, 2007

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet  but there is still time for it not to begin. … This is it, the absolute edge of no return, to turn back now and make home or sail irrevocably on and either find land or plunge over the world’s roaring rim. 

—William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust, 1948


I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

—Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art,” The Complete Poems, 1927-79

“Who is the best marshal they have?”

The sheriff thought on it for a minute. He said, “I would have to weigh that proposition. There is near about two hundred of them. I reckon William Waters is the best tracker. He is a half-breed Comanche and it is something to see, watching him cut for sign. The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double-tough, and fear don’t enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. Now
L. T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and then but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Also the court does not pay any fees for dead men. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is straight as a string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.”

I said, “Where can I find this Rooster?”

—Charles Portis, True Grit, 1968

I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened by the old ones.

—John Cage

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