Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven

H The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
001. What you must be, girls, is impenetrable.
002. What I feel towards them is blankness. What I feel is that I must not feel.
003. Is that how we lived, then? But we lived as usual. Everyone does, most of the time. Whatever is going on is as usual.
004. My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter.
005. But I won’t give it away, this eagerness of mine. It’s a bargaining session, things are about to be exchanged. She who does not hesitate is lost. I’m not giving anything away: selling only.
006. What I need is perspective. The illusion of depth, created by a frame, the arrangement of shapes on a flat surface. Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions. Otherwise you live with your face squashed against a wall, everything a huge foreground, of details, close-up, hairs, the weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face. Your own skin like a map, a diagram of futility, crisscrossed with tiny roads that lead nowhere. Otherwise you live in the moment. Which is not where I want to be.
007. how easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all.
008. No mother is ever, completely, a child’s idea of what a mother should be, and I suppose it works the other way around as well. But despite everything, we didn’t do badly by one another, we did as well as most.
I wish she were here, so I could tell her I finally know this.
009. It’s like Janine, though, to take it upon herself, to decide the baby’s flaws were due to her alone. But people will be anything rather than admit that their lives have no meaning.
010. There’s a certain consolation to be taken from routine.


The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
-001- In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. Early every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work.
… Every morning the two friends walked silently together until they reached the main street of the town. Then when they came to a certain fruit and candy store they paused for a moment on the sidewalk outside. … In the late afternoon the friends would meet again. Singer came back to the fruit store and waited until Antonapoulos was ready to go home.
… For, excepting drinking and a certain solitary secret pleasure, Antonapoulos loved to eat more than anything else in the world.
…They shared the upstairs of a small house near the business section of the town. There were two rooms. … Sometimes in the evening the mutes would play chess. Singer had always greatly enjoyed this game, and years before he had tried to teach it to Antonapoulos. At first his friend could not be interested in the reasons for moving the various pieces about on the board. Then Singer began to keep a bottle of something good under the table to be taken out after each lesson.
… After the first moves Singer worked out the game by himself while his friend looked on drowsily. If Singer made brilliant attacks on his own men so that in the end the black king was killed, Antonapoulos was always very proud and pleased. … The two mutes had no other friends, and except when they worked they were alone together. Each day was very much like any other day, because they were alone so much that nothing ever disturbed them. Once a week they would go to the library for Singer to withdraw a mystery book and on Friday night they attended a movie. Then on payday they always went to the ten-cent photograph shop above the Army and Navy store so that Antonapoulos could have his picture taken. These were the only places where they made customary visits. There were many parts in the town that they had never seen.
…..But the two mutes were not lonely at all. At home they were content to eat and drink, and Singer would talk with his hands eagerly to his friend about all that was in his mind. So the years passed in this quiet way until Singer reached the age of thirty-two and had been in the town with Antonapoulos for ten years.
…Then one day the Greek became ill… Singer nursed his friend so carefully that after a week Antonapoulos was able to return to work. But from that time on there was a different in their way of life. Trouble came to the two friends.
… Antonapoulos was not ill any more, but a change had come in him. He was irritable and no longer content to spend the evenings quietly in their home. When he would wish to go out Singer followed along close behind him. …
-002- [Singer] ate meals at a restaurant only two blocks away. … The first day he glanced over the menu quickly and wrote a short note and handed it to the proprietor.
Each morning for breakfast I want an egg, toast, and coffee– $0.15
For lunch I want soup (any kind), a meat sandwich, and milk– $0.25
Please bring me at dinner three vegetables (any kind but cabbage), fish or meat, and a glass of beer– $0.35
Thank you.
…Each evening the mute walked alone for hours in the street. Sometimes the nights were cold with the sharp, wet winds of March and it would be raining heavily. But to him this did not matter. His gait was agitated and he always kept his hands stuffed tight into the pockets of his trousers. Then as the weeks passed the days grew warm and languorous. His agitation gave was gradually to exhaustion and there was a look about him of deep calm. In his face there came to be brooding peace that is seen most often in the faces of the very sorrowful or the very wise. But still he wandered through the streets of the town, always silent and alone.
-003- …Blount was not a freak, although when you first saw him he gave you that impression. It was like something was deformed about him—but when you looked at him closely each part of him was normal and as it ought to be. Therefore if this difference was not in the body it was probably in the mind. He was like a man who had served a term in prison or had been to Harvard College or had lived for a long time with foreigners in South America. He was like a person who had been somewhere that other people are not likely to go or had done something that others are not apt to do.
-004- [Regarding Singer] The fellow was downright uncanny. People felt themselves watching him even before they knew that there was anything different about him. His eyes made a person think that he heard things nobody else had ever heard, that he knew things no one had ever guessed before. He did not seem quiet human.
-005- Singer looked as though he could not be surprised at anything.
-006- One by one they would come to Singer’s room to spend the evening with him. The mute was always thoughtful and composed. His many-tinted eyes were grave as a sorcerer’s. Mick Kelly and Jake Blount and Doctor Copeland would come and talk in the silent room—for they felt that the mute would always understand whatever they wanted to say to him.

H Hell with the Lid Taken Off: Book One: River of Mud by Lee Adam Herold
001. Under low clouds, sky and city seemed to be made both of the same material, grey and hard. Somehow, afternoon sunlight managed to filter through the thick mass of clouds and smog. It was neither bright not warming, but it helped to differentiate day from night, at least, The buildings—made of wood, brick, granite—thrust their peaks toward the murky canopy overhead, the city taking on the aspect of a cold dark fortress. Those were not mere clouds perched above, but a perpetual dome of smoke and smog generated by the city’s industry. It was there always, making every day grey and ashen. There were days when the noon hour was indistinguishable from midnight. This dubious peculiarity had earned Pittsburg the nickname ‘The Smoky City’ and had inspired some snob from Boston to dub it ‘Hell with the lid taken off’.
002. He cut a dangerous, powerful figure, if indeed a monk then a warrior-monk. If Brother Koval was representative of the brothers of this Order, I imagined their ministry must exist to simply frighten the Devil into submission.
003. Brother Koval stood militarily like a statue at the door and did not appear inclined, if even capable, of sitting at all. Ever.
004. Finally we reached a chamber which Brother Koval himself unsealed. It was black within but felt cold and cavernous, the smell of fresh-turned earth rolling over me as it seemed to exhale with eager relief at being opened.
005. Echoes seemed to chase themselves like whispers across the spaces of the room. It seemed to me as though the air itself flickered, vaguely over-laying the scene with staccato strokes like an impressionist painting.
006. The monk sounded mad, but there was truth audible in his tale, whether it was literal truth or merely the false truth of one who believes what they say so completely that their delusion has become their reality.
007 Brother Ragar sighed. ‘The Clan of Phorcys,’ he began deliberately, ‘is a society as old as any in existence. They take their name from their worship of an ancient sea god. The Greek poet Hesiod holds Phorcys to be the father of the Gorgons, Medusa being the most famous of those… the snake-haired woman whose gaze turned men to stone. But the Clan does not subscribe to the view of their deity as the character from quaint tales of mythology. They will make references to this incarnation, but the Phorcys they worship is of a far darker, and more primordial origin. They worship the ancient demon Phorcys, created by Lucifer himself out of the ether as one of many minions to serve him after his fall from God’s service. The demon was given dominion over the waters, and some Men, in all their foolishness and ignorance, fell to their knees at the very diea of him. The mythos of the Clan holds that Phorcys, also known by any number of other blasphemous names, is an alien god from deepest outer space, having come to earth hundreds of millions of years ago to now lie sleeping deep beneath the sea.
008 I blinked my eyes, hard, and shook my head, overcome by the strangest momentary sensation that the space at the landing was filled with water, like a giant aquarium tank but without the glass barrier of the tank itself. Something waited up there. Some nothing. The same nothing that had been there all along.
009 Pardon me for being flippant. Matters of mortality used to weigh much more heavily on me, but I find myself tending rather toward the detached these days in that regard.
010 They talk of evil as though it’s some abomination, while laying their heads on its lap and feasting on crumbs from its table. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through all this, it’s that there is no Good versus Evil. There is only Foolishness versus Expediency.
011 An evil thought skittered through my brain just then, like spindly-clawed shadow, scurrying like vermin from the light. I pursued it, pulled it back out to examine it.
012 Each door, you see, each gateway to the Underworld is referred to as a Locus of Confluence…a point where the Netherworld and the physical realm actually meet, interact, flow together.
013 …for what are rules really but arbitrary assignments of situational preference, benefiting the one who is in position to lay them out…
014 For what seemed an hour we wound up and down the curving paths beneath the gnarled boughs of great old trees, and in the faintly moonlit darkness around us I could make out the vague glowing shapes of tall crypts and myriad headstones. The taller grave markers rose up like the timeless monuments they were, proud and haughty. Many of the smaller stones were weather-worn, and learned or had fallen over completely. Avenues of grass ran between the stones, roads straight and true, beneath which lay this macabre neighbourhood’s wormy denizens. Neighbourhood? The cemetery was a small city unto itself. It was far from quiet and still though, this city where the dead slept. Deer, startled by our approach, would bound through piles of dead leaves collected around headstones. Golden eyes would wink out of the darkness, conjured by the shrouded moon: raccoons or dogs or perhaps even wolves. Owls hooted from the trees, and from time to time in the distance the anguished shriek of some poor prey meeting its end in merciless jaws would reach us before being strangled out. It was surprising that in the midst of Pittsburg, this city of advance human industry, these acres of wooded lands could still turn feral, a self-contained Wild, after night fell.
015 Surely she had come to devour me. I wondered abruptly, though, why she had bothered to re-light my candle before eating me.
016 Remember all who pass me by
As thou art now, so once was I
As I am now, so wilt thou be
Prepare thyself to follow me.
017 …and I pried my eyes open to peer into the darkness beyond the ephemeral torch light. There was movement there, distant, and the sound of water lapping. A boat approached from somewhere out in the middle of the Abaat. It came slowly, preceded by delicate, curling fingers of mist but with a full grey fog bank in tow.
018…and I could not define with any certainty what sort of being he might have been. He seemed part spirit, part patchwork monster. The fog around and behind the boat slithered up over the sides from the water beneath, tendrils of it, and these streamers appeared to coalesce at the being’s feet and take the shape of its robes, which solidified into a coarse dark grey fabric as they climbed higher on his form. Mist emerged like smoke from the front opening of the robes, from the holes and frayed patches worn through it, from the ends of the sleeves and from the raised cowl.
019 The boatman’s head too was made of the fog, swirling up out of the robe’s neck to fill the large hood. A long sharp nose protruded from the cowl like a beak, and mismatched eyes balanced in the hood’s shadow on either side of the nose, one iris dark, the other light, unblinking orbs set in black sockets. There were teeth visible beneath the nose, but no lips, no cheeks, no bottom jaw.
020 ‘Readle-eak!’ sounds the cry of a bird. A grackle. Smaller than a crow, feathers black with an iridescent sheen, especially about the head…shimmering combinations of green, blue, purple, depending on how the light strikes. The cry repeats. Others answer. Grackles everywhere. Crows are a Murder. Ravens an Unkindness. Grackles are a Plague. A Plague of Grackles.
021 They are the shimmering of the Northern Lights in the Underbelly, Plagues of them circling open spaces in the nether sky. Purple, green, and blue dance in the air, undulating in patterns formed by their micro-formations. They are moving in synchronous whorls, poison brew in a cauldron stirred by a witch’s ladle.
022 They are a black wind. Black. Endless black, until the colours bleed out and the black with the colours split, sprout, separate to take the shape of feathers, and the wind they make and the visitants are delivered into the sphere of their inhabitance. Out of the darkness they are brought forth.

H The History of Caliph Vathek by William Beckford
001. His figure was pleasing and majestic; but when he was angry one of his eyes became so terrible that no person could bear to behold it, and the wretch upon whom it was fixed instantly fell backward, and sometimes expired.  For fear, however, of depopulating his dominions and making his palace desolate he but rarely gave way to his anger.
002. But the unquiet and impetuous disposition of the Caliph would not allow him to rest there; he had studied so much for his amusement in the life-time of his father as to acquire a great deal of knowledge, though not a sufficiency to satisfy himself; for he wished to know everything, even sciences that did not exist.  He was fond of engaging in disputes with the learned, but liked them not to push their opposition with warmth; he stopped the mouths of those with presents whose mouths could be stopped, whilst others, whom his liberality was unable to subdue, he sent to prison to cool their blood: a remedy that often succeeded.
003. Vathek discovered also a predilection for theological controversy, but it was not with the orthodox that he usually held.  By this means he induced the zealots to oppose him, and then persecuted them in return; for he resolved at any rate to have reason on his side.
004. “Have patience, son!” said she; “you certainly are possessed of every important science, but the knowledge of languages is a trifle at best, and the accomplishment of none but a pedant.
005. for it is but just that men, who so often arrogate to their own merit the good of which they are but instruments, should attribute to themselves the absurdities which they could not prevent.

H Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
01. One of the things Ford Prefect found hard to understand about human beings was their habit of continually stating and re-stating the very, very obvious, as in: “It’s a nice day”, “You’re very tall” or “So this is it; we are going to die”. At first, Ford formed a theory to account for this strange behaviour. ‘If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips’ he thought ‘their mouths probably seize up’. After a while he abandoned this theory in favour of a new one. ‘If they don’t keep exercising their lips’ he thought ‘their brains start working’. In fact, this second theory is more literally true of the Belcerebon People of Kakrafoon Kappa. The Belcerebons used to cause great resentment amongst neighbouring races by being one of the most enlightened, accomplished and above all quite civilizations in the galaxy. As a punishment for this behaviour, which was held to be offensively self-righteous and provocative, a galactic tribunal inflicted on them that most cruel of all social diseases: telepathy. Now, in order to prevent themselves from broadcasting every slightest thought that crosses their minds to anyone within a five-mile radius, they have to talk loudly and continuously about the weather, their little aches and pains, thee match this afternoon and what a noisy place Kakrafoon has suddenly become.

A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham
01. We become the stories we tell about ourselves.

‘Horrorday’ by Martin Amis [excerpt from London Fields used in The New Gothic]
001. …one of those breed of men, giant miracles of facial hair and weight problem…
002. But Little Boy was the name of the atom bomb. It killed 50,000 people in 120 seconds.

H “A House to Let” by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell and Adelaide Anne Procter
001. “Good gracious, goodness gracious, Doctor Towers!” says I, quite startled at the man, for he was so christened himself: “don’t talk as if you were alluding to people’s names; but say what you mean.” “I mean, my dear ma’am, that we want a little change of air and scene.” “Bless the man!” said I; “does he mean we or me!” “I mean you, ma’am.” “Then Lard forgive you, Doctor Towers,” I said; “why don’t you get into a habit of expressing yourself in a straightforward manner, like a loyal subject of our gracious Queen Victoria, and a member of the Church of England?”
Towers laughed, as he generally does when he has fidgetted me into any of my impatient ways–one of my states, as I call them
002. Trottle, who just then came in with the coal-scuttle, looking, in his nice black suit, like an amiable man putting on coals from motives of benevolence.
003. I never travel by railway: not that I have anything to say against railways, except that they came in when I was too old to take to them; and that they made ducks and drakes of a few turnpike-bonds I had
004. my sight is uncommonly good for my time of life; and I wear glasses as little as I can, for fear of spoiling it.
005. “Sophonisba!” Which I am obliged to confess is my name. A pretty one and proper one enough when it was given to me: but, a good many years out of date now, and always sounding particularly high-flown and comical from his lips.
006. “How do you do? I hope you are pretty well.” “Thank you. And you?” said Jarber. [PN: He didn't answer the question, which was the done thing. 'How are you?' was often met with, 'How are you?' It was merely a way of acknowledging the other person.]
007. Jarber had brought from under his cloak, a roll of paper, with which he had triumphantly pointed over the way, like the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father appearing to the late Mr. Kemble, and which he had laid on the table.
008.  He rather enjoyed the change of residence; having a kind of curiosity about London, which he had never yet been able to gratify in his brief visits to the metropolis. At the same time he had an odd, shrewd, contempt for the inhabitants; whom he had always pictured to himself as fine, lazy people; caring nothing but for fashion and aristocracy, and lounging away their days in Bond Street, and such places; ruining good English, and ready in their turn to despise him as a provincial.

H How I Became Stupid by Martin Page
-01- He had already realised that intelligence was just the word people used for stupid remarks that were well presented and prettily pronounced and that intelligence itself was so corrupt, there was often more to be gained from being dumb than from being a sworn intellectual. Intelligence makes you unhappy, lonely, and poor, whereas disguising it offers the possibility of immortality in newsprint and the admiration of those who believe what they read.
-02- Drunkenness seemed a good way to suppress any tendency his intellect might have to reflect on life.
-03- He had every intention of becoming on alcoholic. It keeps you busy. Alcohol occupies every thought and provides a goal in times of despair: getting better. Then he would go to Alcoholics Anonymous, would tell his story, would be supported and understood by creatures like himself applauding his courage and his will to break free. He would be an alcoholic—in other words, someone with an illness recognised by society. Alcoholics are pitied, they are cared for, they are thought of in medical terms, humanely. But no one thinks of pitying intelligent people: ‘He watches human behaviour, that must make him unhappy.'; ‘My niece is very intelligent, but she’s a really nice girl. She’s hoping to grow out of it.'; ‘For awhile there, I was afraid you might become intelligent.’ Those are the sort of well-meaning and compassionate words he should have been entitled to if there were any justice in the world. But no, intelligence is a double curse: it makes you suffer and no one thinks of it as an illness.
-04- ‘I think too much, I can’t help overanalysing myself and the world around me, trying to [??] understand how this whole crazy circus works…It makes me incredibly sad to know that we’re not free and that even each conscious thought or act is made at the cost of a wound that will never heal.
‘Kid, what you’re saying is that you’re depressed…’
‘That’s my natural state. I’ve been suffering from depression for twenty-five years.’
-05- As he had never really felt that he was living, he was not afraid of death. He was even happy that, in death, he would find the sole proof that he had been alive.
-06- The reason he would do anything rather than end up in that hospital was that he ran the risk of meeting his uncle Joseph and aunt Miranda there. Antoine was kind-natured, but he could not stand them; in fact, no one could stand them. It was not that they were dangerous, only that they never stopped complaining, moaning and making a fuss about the least little thing. A group of delightful Buddhists had been reduced to joining the ranks of a paramilitary force as a result of spending too much time with them. Every time they travelled abroad they created a diplomatic incident. As a result they were forbidden to visit several countries: Israel, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Japan and the United States. The IRA, the ETA and Hezbollah had published bulletins stating that they would execute the couple if they set foot in their territories again. The authorities in the relevant countries said and did nothing that implied any opposition to this stance. Perhaps one day the army would have the courage to use the destructive potential of this couple and would deploy it when atomic bombs were discovered to be ineffectual.
-07- My life’s a disaster. But that’s not the worst of it. The real problem is that I’m so aware of it…
-08- [About the game Splitting the World in Two] This consisted of finding the true great divisions in our worlds, those that really matter, because the world always, invariably, can be split in two…
-09- Men simplify the world with words and thoughts, and that’s how they create their certainties; and having certainty is the most potent pleasure in this world, far more potent than money, sex and power all combined. Renouncing true intelligence is the price we have to pay for having these certainties and it’s an expenditure that never gets noticed by the back of our minds. In this instance, I actually prefer those who don’t huddle behind the cloak of reason, and come out and admit the illusory nature of their beliefs. Like a believer admitting that his faith is just his own belief and not pre-emption on the truths of the world.
-10- At the same time—because he lied to be as objective about himself as he was about others—he saw that in trying to understand everything he had learned not to live and not to love.
-11- I knew plenty of people who are really dumb, ignorant, stuffed full of prejudices and ideas, complete morons, and they’re happy!
-12- After a few self-interested visits to the apartments of a number of neighbours who he deemed to have excellent immune defences against intelligence, he made notes on what constituted a perfect décor for his new life. A neighbouring couple—comprised of a teacher named Alain and a journalist named Isabelle—struck him as being an edifying example of a life entirely devoted to a renunciation of intelligence. He had been watching them for a long time and, deep down, he admired them: they were so wholly involved in life, and had so absolutely [missing words?] every last nuance of a dazzling stupidity, a pure idiocy, full of innocence, happy and replete, a lack of awareness that was pleasant for both them and for those around them, not in the least bit nasty or dangerous. With a kindly sincerity that was quite charmingly ridiculous. Alain and Isabelle advised him on how to fill his studio. He picked up an old television, which he installed in the middle of the room as the sovereign symbol of his resolution. He taped up posters of The Lion King, sports cars and pneumatic young women; photographs of actors and actresses with their penetrating, I’m-a-genius expressions, and of immortal intellectual personalities such as Alain Minc [?] and Alain Finkielkraut.
-13- On a particularly fruitful day of despair Antoine had once told himself that to believe in the truths that force us to bow our heads is to form alliances with the reality they derive from: whoever wants to find proof of his unhappiness will find it, because in human affairs you always find what you’re looking for.
-14- Antoine had lived in a rainy autumn for twenty-five years.
-15- ‘And another thing, if you ask me, the big divide in this world (well, apart from the whole second-class thing), the big divide in the world is between the people who used to go to parties and the people who didn’t. And this split in the human race, which goes back to junior-high days, goes right through life in different guises.

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