Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven

Case Histories Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
-01- p184: Amelia had sex with Andrew Vandy ten years ago because she was afraid she would live and die an old maid. Because it had seemed ridiculous to be a virgin at thirty-five years old in the dying years of the twentieth century. Because she didn’t understand how she was as good as dead without ever having lived. She supposed she must be in the virginal state because she was shy and easily embarrassed and sex seemed so downright daunting (and, let’s face it, vaguely disgusting). At university, she’d had a reputation for being prim and proper, but she always expected that some boy (or some [???] man) would breach this [???] strategy and sweep away her inhibitions and admit sexual passion into her life. But no one, brooding, [???] or otherwise, seemed to want her. Sometimes she wondered if perhaps she gave off the wrong scent, or no scent at all because it was as primitive as that, wasn’t it, like cats and queen bees and musk deer?
-02- Perhaps more curious than the fact that there was no one who wanted Amelia was that she, in turn, wanted no one—apart from men in nineteen-century novels, which put a whole new spin on the idea of ‘unattainable.’ … For the longest time Amelia waited for someone to appear who would make her heart race and her brain [???] and her intellect crumble and when it didn’t happen she thought, perhaps she had been intended by nature to be celibate, that she should rejoice (privately anyway) in this vestal state and rather than fretting about her unbroken hymen she should see it as a trophy, unattainable to mere mortal men. (A dubious kind of prize, admittedly.)
-03- She would die a [???] virgin queen, a new Gloriana. This was during a period when she was having a kind of breakdown—mostly to do with the impossibility of “communicating” with the [???] and [???] and hair dressers and partly to do with the utter futility of life (although anyone with half a brain must surely be mired in existential gloom all the time)–and then, just when she was at her weakest and most vulnerable, Andrew Vardy said to her, ‘You know, Amelia, if you ever want to have sex, I’d be happy to oblige.’ Just like that—as if she was a cow that needed servicing! Or a virgin who needed deflowering…
-04- Before Andrew Vardy, Amelia imagined that sex would be (somehow, God knows how) an amalgam of the mystical and the coarsely animalistic, a warm and blurry experience that would transcend the mechanics. What she hadn’t imagined was that it would be banal and rather tiresome. Although, unfortunately, still vaguely disgusting.
-05- … [She buys a book of sex tips] ‘Undress slowly,’ the book advised, ‘all men appreciate a sexy striptease.’ Amelia had rather hoped that they might keep their clothes on throughout the whole process. Nonetheless, she showed her legs and armpits, although for the life of her she couldn’t see what was wrong with body hair, and painted (rather badly) her toe-nails, and showered and perfumed herself with something French that Julia had left behind after a visit. She felt as if she was preparing herself for a sacrifice.
-06- p207: [Julia] was wearing a skimpy top that belonged on a teenager but it revealed her neat, hard biceps (she definitely worked out) and at least she had triceps, unlike Amelia who had the kind of swimming underarm flesh that would have made it easy for her to glide amongst the treetops.

Casting the Runes by M.R. James
…and tea was taken to the accompaniment of a discussion which golfing persons can imagine for the themselves, but which the conscientious writer has no right to inflict upon any non-golfing persons. The conclusion arrived at was that certain strokes might have been better and that in certain emergencies neither played had experienced that amount of luck which a human being has a right to speech.

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
001. Miracles, visions, necromancy, dreams, and other preternatural events, are exploded now even from romances.  That was not the case when our author wrote; much less when the story itself is supposed to have happened.  Belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages, that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the times, who should omit all mention of them.  He is not bound to believe them himself, but he must represent his actors as believing them.
002. …he curbed the yearnings of his heart, and did not dare to lean even towards pity.  The next transition of his soul was to exquisite villainy.

The Catastrophist by Lawrence Douglas
001. Schopenhauer’s argument that pain is a more philosophically interesting experience than happiness. Pain, he observed, has roused the human spirit to its most fierce and stormy creations, whereas happiness invariably expends itself in a rainbow of bland cliche. And while pain can assume limitless forms and intensities, happiness restricts itself to a comparatively narrow palate. As an example, Schopenhauer turned to his nail-picking habit. All inveterate nail-pickers have on occasion picked with such reckless determination that the nail bleeds and becomes infected. One night, Schopenhauer’s thumb was so inflamed that he could not sleep. That pain, from a partially torn thumbnail, was more intense, he claimed, than any corresponding feeling of happiness he had ever felt. For many years this made sense to me, but that afternoon I felt sorry for Schopenhauer. Obviously he has never felt what possessed me at my teak-finished desk: the transformative power of pure happiness. It ushered me to a state of heighted aliveness, my every sense acute and receptive. A superabundance of energy coursed though me.
002. I tried to recall what I knew about the Thirty Years War. I recalled that it started with someone being tossed from a window in Prague and ended with a quarter of the population of Central Europe dead.
003. ‘…And what do you mean about trying harder–you think I enjoy being this way? Do you have any idea how hard I struggle to master these fears?’
‘I know you do, but maybe that’s part of the problem. Instead of trying to think through all your dread, try ignoring it. Just pretend it isn’t there.’
‘Pretend I’m normal?’
‘Exactly. I mean this seriously. If you think, ‘a normal person would act happy in this situation,’ then act happy, even if you are feeling misery. If you can do this successfully, then I think you really are okay.’
I thought about this for some time. Was Klara’s ability to pull herself out of her purple funks a result of her fluid understanding of personal identity? Maybe my problem was too strong a belief in the continuity of self over time. Maybe I needed to take the whole idea of the coherent human subject more casually, even if that flew in the face of my narcissism and liberalism.
004. Where do people find the courage to act on their debauchery?…I once read an article by an anthropologist who divided people into two basic camps–the ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ group, and the ‘nothing ventured, nothing lost’ group. It wasn’t hard to figure out what one I belonged in.
Or maybe it was sick to envy a pathetic pervert. Maybe the poor toad couldn’t help himself.
005. To the other I could see the Reichstag, enveloped in a shroud, as if Christo had never left.
006. It often crossed my mind while addressing an academic audience that my position was entirely specious–that I could just as easily have been arguing the opposite view.
007. In my mid-twenties. I had longed for a nineteeth-century-style voluptuous illness, a physical analogue to me depressed mental state. Nothing life-threatening, just one of those obscure maladies, like neurasthenia, that would require taking “the waters” in Baden-Baden. A nurse with gigantic Nordic eyes and pillowy breasts would wrap me in camel-hair blankets and push me along gravel paths in a wooden wheelchair, and later would serve me tea and recite Rilke as we sat together on a wrought-iron balcony overlooking a field of ice sculptures from Parsifal. To my disappointment, I remained tenaciously healthy.

‘The Child of Queen Victoria’ by William Plomer
001. We hear a great deal about sex nowadays; it is possible to overestimate its importance, because there are always people who pay it little attention or who apparently manage, like Sir Isaac Newton, to get along, without giving it a thought.
002. [About a thundercloud over mountains] Those sunny hills seemed to be possessed by a spirit that nursed a grievance.
003. And to be all by oneself and to think oneself right is really rather fatal, especially if one naturally tends to be both straightforward and severe.
004. He was being Hamletized by circumstances.
005. …on long, sultry afternoons a group of turkey-bustards [sic] , as grave as senators, wouldplod grumbling across some grassy plateau,…
006. A clump of clivia lilies were blooming in deep shadow–they were living and dying in secret, without argument, and untroubled by eyes and voices.
007. once even a few drops of rain fell in the dust, as if a few devils had spat from a great height.
008. He put out his light, and like a convict without a crime, in a prison that was not locked, for a sentence of indeterminate duration, he just lay there sweating.
009. The tenseness of the atmosphere, the expectancy of nature, and the way in which the whole landscape, the very buildings and their shadows seemed to take part in the great symphony of the impending storm, combined to produce an effect so dramatic as to seem almost supernatural.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley
001. Taken on a full stomach–no worries about that where Ryerson Rainsmith was concerned!–sodium bicarbonate combined with effervescent alcohol could be deadly: first, the headache, which seemed to grow by the minute, followed by mental confusion and severe stomach pain; then the muscle weakness, the thin stools like coffee grounds, the tremors, the twitching: all the classic symptoms of alkalosis. I would insist on taking him out on deck for a healthy walk. Forcing him to hyperventilate in all this fresh, invigorating air would speed up the process–like sloshing petrol onto a fire.
If I could manage to raise the pH of his arterial blood to 7.65, he wouldn’t stand the chance of a snowman in Hades. He would die in agony.
002. My father was from an era when gentleman were taught that politeness was everything, that the only sure way to lose out to the Philistines was to lose your temper and admit that they her wounded you.
003. I won’t say that my blood ran cold, but it distinctly cooled. I was not at my best with hordes;…
004. Life wasn’t fair. It simply wasn’t fair, and I meant to make a note of it.
005. I tried counting sheep, but it was no use. Sheep bored me.
Then I tried counting bottles of poison:
Ninety-nine bottles of arsenic on the wall (paper),
Ninety-nine bottles of arsenic,
If one of the bottles should happen to fall (paper),
There’d be ninety-eight bottles of arsenic on the wall (paper),
Ninety-eight bottles of arsenic on the wall (paper)–
Were the bottles of arsenic actually pictured on the wallpaper, or had each roll been soaked in the stuff? Arsenical wallpaper, I remembered, colored with the poisoned pigment Scheele’s Green, had killed Napoleon, among others, and was sadly no longer manufactured.
006. I knew that the Hand of Glory was the pickled and mummified hand of a hanged murderer, carried by eighteenth-century housebreakers in the belief that, in addition to paralyzing any hapless householder who might interrupt them in their burgling, it would also unlock all doors and confer invisibility upon them: a sort of primitive version of the do-it-all Boy Scout knife. Dried in a fire of juniper smoke and yew wood, and used to hold a special candle made from the  fat of a badger, a bear, and an unbaptized child, the Hand of Glory was the answer to a burglar’s prayer.
007. I could succeed at whatever I chose. I could, for instance, become an undertaker. Or a pathologist. A detective, a gravedigger, a tombstone maker, or even the world’s greatest murderer.
Suddenly the world was my oyster–even if it  was a dead one.
008. Was it wrong to be so deceitful? Well, yes, it probably was. But if God hadn’t wanted me to be the way I am, He would have arranged to have me born a haddock instead of Flavia de Luce–wouldn’t He?
009. Once people have you in their power, it’s remarkable how quickly their grip extends to all things.
010. My automatic response to  someone who has gone too far is to wrap myself in a cloak of coolness.
011. Daffy had bored me stiff one rainy Sunday afternoon by reading aloud from the  Dialogues of Plato , in which a gaggle of sissified young men–or so it seemed to me–had traipsed round a sunny courtyard behind their master asking all the right questions: the ones that allowed him to deliver his thunderbolts of logic to their greatest effect.
Like stooges feeding straight lines to a great comedian, their function was to make him look good.
012. There is a mystery in silence that can never be matched by mere words. Silence is power–at least until they grab you by the neck.
013. A pillar of strength, Daffy had once remarked, was a nice way of saying someone was terminally bossy.
014. There’s something in human nature, I’m beginning to learn, which makes an adult, when speaking to a younger person, magnify the little things and shrink the big ones. It’s like looking–or talking–through a kind of word-telescope that, no matter which end they choose, distorts the truth. Your mistakes are always magnified and your victories shriveled.
015. Sleep was impossible. I tossed and turned, sweated and swore. By daylight I was a bad-tempered haystack.

Confederacy of Dunces A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O’Toole
-01- With the breakdown of the Medieval system, the gods of Chaos, Lunacy and Bad Taste gained ascendancy…
-02- ”My being is not without its Proustian elements…”
-03- Some day the authorities of our society will no doubt apprehend her for simply being herself.
-04- ‘So that’s who that obvious appendage of officialdom was. He looked like an arm of the bureaucracy. You can always tell employees of the government by the total vacancy which occupies the space where most other people have faces.’
-05- You could tell by the way that he talked, though, that he had gone to school a long time. That was probably what was wrong with him. George had been worse enough to get out of school as soon as possible. He didn’t want to end up like that guy.
-06- ‘You learnt everything, Ignatius, except how to be a human being.’
-07- ‘It’s not your fate to be well treated…You’re an overt masochist. Nice treatment will confuse and destroy you.’
-08- As he crossed into the night of Joy’s block, he head the doped Negro calling, ‘Whoa! Come in, see Miss Harla O’Horror dancin with her pet. Guarantee one hunner percent real plantation dancin. Ever motherfuckin drink got a guarantee knockout drop. Whoa! Everybody guarantee to catch them some clap off they glass. Hey! Nobody never see nothin like Miss Harla O’Horror Old South pet dancin. Opening night tonight, may be this be your one and only chance to catch this act. Ooo-wee.’

‘Hey! All you people’s draggin along here. top and come stick your ass on a Night of Joy stool..! Night of Joy got genuine color peoples workin below the minimal wage. Whoa! Guarantee plantation atmosphere, got cotton growin right on the stage right in front your eyeball, got a civil right worker getting his ass beat up between show. Hey!’

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