Commonplace Book - Autumn 2010


By Anne Matthews | September 1, 2010


If the crime of theft which I committed that night as a boy of sixteen were a living thing, I could speak to it and ask what it was that, to my shame, I loved in it. … It is true that the pears we stole had beauty. … But it was not the pears that my unhappy soul desired. I had plenty of my own, better than those, and I only picked them so that I might steal. … If any part of one of those pears passed my lips, it was the sin that gave it flavor.

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, Confessions, AD 397–98

Fasting is futile unless it is accompanied by an incessant longing for self-restraint. … If … not accompanied by mental fasting, it is bound to end in hypocrisy and disaster.

Mohandas Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, 1927

No one denies that for years, as a result of insufficient winter clothing, [Father] had open sores on his legs, that he often went hungry, that when he was only 10 he had to push a cart through the villages, even in winter and very early in the morning—but, and this is something he will not understand, these facts, taken together with the further fact that I have not gone through all this, by no means lead to the conclusion that …  just because I have not gone through the same sufferings I must be endlessly grateful to him.

Franz Kafka, December 26, 1911, diary entry

The poor on the borderline of starvation live purposeful lives. To be engaged in a desperate struggle for food and shelter is to be wholly free from a sense of futility.

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, 1951

Scarlett began on the ham, because she liked ham, and forced it down.

“I wish to Heaven I was married,” she said resentfully as she attacked the yams with loathing. “I’m tired of everlastingly being unnatural and never doing anything I want to do. I’m tired of acting like I don’t eat more than a bird, and walking when I want to run and saying I feel faint after a waltz, when I could dance for two days and not get tired. I’m tired of saying ‘How wonderful you are!’ to fool men who haven’t got one-half the sense I’ve got, and I’m tired of pretending I don’t know anything, so men can tell me things and feel important while they’re doing it. … I can’t eat another bite.”

“Try a hot cake,” said Mammy inexorably.

Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind, 1936

Where did I get my violent passion for rustic wedding-breakfasts? What ancestor bequeathed to me, via my frugal parents, a positively religious fervour for stewed rabbit, leg of mutton with garlic, soft-boiled eggs in red wine, all served between barn walls draped with buff sheets decorated with branches of red June roses? I am only 13, and the familiar menu of these four o’clock repasts does not appall me. … A happiness in advance of any years, a subtle happiness of satiated greed, keeps me sitting there peacefully gorged with rabbit stew, boiled chicken and sweetened wine.

Colette, My Mother’s House, 1922

My grandmother does not eat eggs or fowl, because they are unclean. She will not allow either to be cooked in her kitchen; she looks indignant even when fowl is cooked outside in the hall. …  Garlic, shallots and onions, sensual bulbs all, and openly bloody tomatoes, are also outcasts from her kitchen, just like fowl. … [She] gives me a second helping of my favorite meal of crisply fried trout, untouchably hot, garnished with salt and red pepper, and mixed with cold, sweet leftover rice. I eat heavenly morsels of the juxtaposition of the hot and the cold. As I eat … she involuntarily copies my facial motions of mastication: one person is eating but two are being fed.

Sudha Koul, The Tiger Ladies:  A Memoir of Kashmir, 2002

I bit my hands in helpless grief. And they, thinking I chewed myself for hunger, rose suddenly together. I heard them say:

“Father, it would give us much less pain if you ate us: it was you who put upon us this sorry flesh; now strip it off again.” … Then, already blind, I began to crawl from body
to body shaking them frantically. Two days I called their names, and they were dead. Then fasting overcame my grief and me.

Dante Aligheri on Ugolino and his sons, Inferno, Canto 33 (trans. John Ciardi, 1954)

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates … monkey-brain is an African’s cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. … Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good.

Binyavanga Wainaina, “How to Write About Africa,” 2005

One day, according to legend, Saint Patrick wanted something from God, a favor for himself or his people. For reasons un­­known, God was reluctant to grant the saint’s request. So Patrick went on a hunger strike, a troscad unto death. Repeatedly, angelic messengers begged him to break his fast. They implored. They sang. They remonstrated. But Patrick was steadfast. Patrick would not eat. Against this hunger, even God gave in.

Sharman Apt Russell, Hunger: An Unnatural History, 2005

The board were sitting in solemn conclave when Mr. Bumble rushed into the room in great excitement, and addressing the gentleman in the high chair, said, “Mr. Limbkins! I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!” There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance.

“For more!” said Mr. Limbkins. “Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?”

“He did, sir,” replied Bumble.

“That boy will be hung,” said the gentleman in the white waistcoat; “I know that boy will be hung.”

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist: or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, 1838

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