Commonplace Book - Winter 2015


By Anne Matthews | December 8, 2014


I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes, 700 of which I wrote myself.

—Henry David Thoreau, 1853

Of all that breathes and crawls across the earth,
our mother earth breeds nothing feebler than a man.
So long as the gods grant him power, spring in his knees,
he thinks he will never suffer affliction down the years.
But then, when the happy gods bring on the long hard times,
bear them he must, against his will, and steel his heart.
Our lives, our mood and mind as we pass across the earth
turn as the days turn …

—Homer, The Odyssey (translated by Robert Fagles)

Truthfulness has not been considered important for women, as long as we have remained physically faithful to a man, or chaste. We have been expected to lie with our bodies: to bleach, redden, unkink or curl our hair, pluck eyebrows, shave armpits, wear padding in various places or lace ourselves, take little steps, glaze finger and toe nails, wear clothes that emphasized our helplessness … an existence of unutterable loneliness.

—Adrienne Rich, Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying, 1977

It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don’t know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for those internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.

Lt. Col. Mervin Gonin, DSO, at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, 1945

Earth relates to the universe as the second segment of the left antenna of an aphid sitting on a flower petal in a garden in Teaneck, N.J., for a few hours this afternoon.

Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence, 2014

Therefore, at this fair are all such merchandise sold as houses, lands, trades, places, honors, preferments, titles, countries, kingdoms, lusts, pleasures; and delights of all sorts, as harlots, wives, husbands, children, masters, servants, lives, blood, bodies, souls, silver, gold, pearls … One chanced, mockingly, beholding the carriage of the men, to say unto them, “What will ye buy?” But they, looking gravely upon him, said, “We buy the truth.”

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, 1678

I am a crumbling man—a magnificent ruin, no doubt, but still a ruin—and like all ruins I look best by moonlight.

W. S. Gilbert, 1894

The highlight of your father’s whole life was hearing that he’d killed his father and slept with his mother. He drank in every word, greedily, drop by drop. And after that, what better than to gouge your own eyes out and go begging with your children on the common highroad? His glorious destiny. Well, we’ll have no more of that. Those were dark days for Thebes, the darkest. Thebes deserves a king without a past. My name, thank God, is only Creon. I have both feet on the ground and both hands in my pockets and I have decided that as long as I am King—you see, I’m far less ambitious than your father—I shall simply devote myself to restoring a little order to this crazy world. If that’s possible. It’s not even an adventure I’m embarking on, it’s just a job.

Jean Anouilh, Antigone, 1944

And what did a million get you today? At most, at most, at most: a three-bedroom apartment—no servants’ rooms, no guest rooms, let alone dressing rooms and a sunroom—in a white-brick high-rise built east of Park Avenue in the 1960s with 8 1/2 foot ceilings, a dining room but no library, an entry gallery the size of a closet, no fireplace, skimpy lumberyard moldings, if any, plasterboard walls that transmit whispers, and no private elevator stop. Oh no; instead, a mean windowless elevator hall with at least five pathetically plain bile-beige metal-sheathed doors, each protected by two or more ugly drop locks, opening upon it, one of these morbid portals being yours. Patently … an impossibility!

Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities, 1987

Vanity is the quicksand of reason.

George Sand

My own, my children, mine by right of possession, possession by right of love, by divine right, I now surrender them all to the winds of winter and the snow and the starving deer and the pinyon jays and the emptiness and the silence unbroken by even a thought. In deep stillness, in a somber solemn light, these beings stand, these fins of sandstone hollowed out by time, the juniper trees so shaggy, tough and beautiful, the dead or dying pinyon pines, the little shrubs of rabbitbush and blackbrush, the dried-up stalks of asters and sunflowers gone to seed, the black-rooted silver-blue sage. How difficult to imagine this place without a human presence; how necessary.

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire, 1968

Every university official knows of many cases in which the sum of human happiness would have been increased and family relations much improved if a particular father had bought his son a ranch or farm instead of a college degree.

Christian Gauss, Life in College, 1927

Whatever makes a child want to glue macaroni on a paper plate and paint the assemblage and see it on the refrigerator—that has always been strong in me.

Robert Pinsky, 2007

Every time I paint a portrait I lose a friend.

John Singer Sargent

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