Commonplace Book - Autumn 2008

Secrets

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By Anne Matthews

September 1, 2008


 

 

When we started to work on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, everything was in such a hurry that it wasn’t really ready. . . . Whenever I wanted somebody’s report and they weren’t around, I’d just go to their office, open the filing cabinet, and take it out. When I was finished I’d give it back to the guy: “Thanks for your report.” “Where’d you get it?” “Out of your filing cabinet.” “But I locked it!” “I know you locked it. The locks are no good.”

—Richard FeynmanClassic Feynman, 2006


So I had it after all the months. For nothing is lost, nothing is ever lost. There is always the clue, the canceled check, the smear of lipstick, the footprint in the canna bed, the condom on the park path, the twitch in the old wound, the baby shoes dipped in bronze, the taint in the blood stream.

—Robert Penn WarrenAll the King’s Men, 1946


A secret doesn’t belong, it can never be said to be at home or in its place. . . . The question of the self: “who am I” not in the sense of “who am I” but rather “who is this ‘I’” that can say “who”? What is the “I,” and what becomes of responsibility once the identity of the “I” trembles in secret?

—Jacques DerridaThe Gift of Death, 1992


That new real future which was replacing the imaginary drew its material from the endless minutiae by which her view of Mr. Causabon and her wifely relation, now that she was married to him, was gradually changing with the secret motion of a watch hand. . . . If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

—George EliotMiddlemarch, 1874


If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
. . . If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me;
even the night shall be light about me.
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee.

—Psalm 139, King James Version


The secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake . . . but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the 19th century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules.

—Joan DidionSlouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968


A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.

—Diane ArbusArtforum, 1971


The secret is to always let the other man have your way.

—Claiborne Pell, former U.S. Senator (b. 1918)


Berlin. What a garrison of spies! . . . what a playground for every alchemist, miracle-worker, and rat-piper that ever took up the cloak . . . agents of disruption, subversion, sabotage and disinformation . . . tunnelers and smugglers, listeners and forgers, trainers and recruiters and talent-spotters and couriers and watchers and seducers, assassins and balloonists, lip-readers and disguise artists.

—John Le CarréA Perfect Spy, 1986


The elephant, the huge old beast,
is slow to mate;
he finds a female, they show no haste
they wait . . .

So slowly the great hot elephant hearts
grow full of desire,
and the great beasts mate in secret at last,
hiding their fire.

Oldest they are and the wisest of beasts
so they know at last
how to wait for the loneliest of feasts
for the full repast.

They do not snatch, they do not tear;
their massive blood
moves as the moon-tides, near, more near,
till they touch in flood.

—D. H. Lawrence, “The Elephant Is Slow to Mate,” 1929


But I would like to think for a moment about a man who in the morning teaches his stu­dents that a false attribution of a Watteau drawing or an inaccurate transcription of a 14th-century epigraph is a sin against the spirit and in the afternoon or evening trans­mits to the agents of Soviet intelligence classified, perhaps vital information given to him in sworn trust by his countrymen and inti­mate colleagues. What are the sources of such scission? How does the spirit mask itself?

—George Steiner, “The Cleric of Treason,” 1979


“Now,” I whispered, loudly, into the saloon—too loudly, perhaps, but I was afraid I couldn’t make a sound. He was by my side in an instant—the double captain slipped past the stairs—through a tiny dark passage . . . a sliding door. We were in the sail locker, scrambling on our knees over the sails. A sudden thought struck me. I saw myself wandering barefooted, bareheaded, the sun beating on my dark poll. I snatched off my floppy hat and tried hurriedly in the dark to ram it on my other self. He dodged and fended off silently. I wonder what he thought had come to me before he understood and suddenly desisted. Our hands met gropingly, lingered united in a steady, motionless clasp for a second. . . . No word was breathed by either of us when they separated.

—Joseph ConradThe Secret Sharer, 1912


Deep autumn—
my neighbor,
how does he live, I wonder?

—Matsuo Basho, (1644–1694)


Anne Matthews is a contributing editor of the SCHOLAR.


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