Life: There is clearly a universal eligibility to be rational and literate

“There is clearly a universal eligibility to be rational and literate. Sometimes snobbery is forced upon you. So let’s have a period of exaggerated respect for reason; and let’s look down on people who use language without respecting it. Liars and hypocrites and demagogues, of course, but also their fellow travelers in verbal cynicism, inertia, and sloth.”

—Martin Amis, The Rub of Time, a beautiful sentiment, especially the idea of rationality and literacy being universally available but not, as we can see, universally adopted. I want to start citing that one when I hear people denigrate standards. To join the clerisy you need no special degrees and there are no gatekeepers; you only need books, and time, and your mind.

Life: The secret presence

“A novelist talking about the art of the novel is not a professor giving a discourse from his podium. Imagine him rather as a painter welcoming you into his studio, where you are surrounded by his canvases staring at you from where they lean against the walls. He will talk about himself, but even more about other people, about novels of theirs that he loves and that have a secret presence in his own work.”

—Milan Kundera, The Curtain.

(“Giving a discourse” is awkward; I wonder if it’s an artifact from the translation.)

Sounds weirdly like modern politics, no?

“When we feel like victims, all our actions and beliefs are legitimized, however questionable they may be. Our opponents or simply our neighbors, stop sharing common ground with us and become our enemies. We stop being aggressors and become defenders. The envy, greed, or resentment that motivates us becomes sanctified, because we tell ourselves we’re acting in self defense. . . . The first step for believing passionately is fear. Fear of losing our identity, our life, our status, or our beliefs.”

That’s a speech given by Andreas Corelli in The Angel’s Game (a great novel, and its English translation came out in 2009).

Oh, and he’s the devil. So we probably ought to be wary of what he says.

Reading such passages is a reminder of why politics in the post-literacy era may not be going so well. It would be hard for a high-literacy person—like most of the “founding fathers” were—to have made some of the recent political choices that voters have made.

 

Life: What is happiness? edition

“I do not promise happiness, and I don’t know what it is. You New World people are, what is the word, hipped on the idea of happiness, as if it were a constant and measurable thing, and settled and excused everything. If it is anything at all it is a by-product of other conditions of life, and some people whose lives do not appear to be at all enviable, or indeed admirable, are happy. Forget your happiness.”

—Robertson Davies, The Manticore

Life: Bicycle and morality

“Tolstoy had also been in his sixties when he learned how to ride a bicycle. He took his first lesson exactly one month after the death of his and Sonya’s beloved youngest son. Both the bicycle and an introductory lesson were a gift from the Moscow Society of Velocipede-Lovers. One can only guess how Sonya felt, in her mourning, to see her husband teetering along the garden paths. ‘Tolstoy has learned to ride a bicycle,’ Chertkov noted at that time. ‘Is this not inconsistent with Christian ideals?'”

—Elif Batuman, The Possessed, and I can’t help but notice the way many transportation options take on a moral dimension in the eyes of many commentators.

Life: Myth and biology edition

“But if art… is a harmony parallel to nature, as I’ve said, then the exploration of nature should be no less exciting and no less spiritually rewarding than the function of art. I mean, it’s the same field. When one’s bliss is actually science… it has to be. I remember that when I was in prep school, biology was the thing that grabbed me, and now I think of mythology as a function of biology, a statement of the impulse system and the organs. Not something that’s made up in the head. What’s made up in the head is the fiction; what comes out of [the heart]  is a myth.”

—Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey

Life: Jokes and philosophy edition

“[Heidegger’s students] found him funny, but he did not share the joke because his sense of humour was somewhere between peculiar and non-existent. It didn’t matter: his clothes, his rustic Swabian accent and his seriousness only heightened his mystique.”

—Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe, a delightful book I almost didn’t read and a much more pleasurable, informative read than the philosophers it describes.

Life: Living meaningfully edition

“While perhaps unintuitive, research that examines the differences between meaning and happiness finds that the things that give us a sense of meaning don’t necessarily make us happy. Moreover, people who report having meaningful lives are often more interested in doing things for others, while those who focus mostly on doing things for themselves report being only superficially happy.”

—Dan Ariely, Payoff. Here is a previous post on hearing him speak about Predictably Irrational in Seattle.

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