Autodidact: self-taught



by V. L. Craven

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
-01- Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for truth, for as a rule they make others die with them,often before them, at times instead of them.
-02- The earth is dancing the dance of Macabre; at times it seems to me that the Danube is crowded with ships loaded with fools going toward a dark place.

The Nightingale Papers by David Nokes
001. Danny held two convictions which eased his existence considerably: the first was that his was not an original mind;
002. ‘Not that there was anything particularly wrong with Marxism as a concept, McWhinnie grinned. It just didn’t work in practice. Much the same as you could say about Christianity; all right as a concept. I trust I don’t offend you,’ he tugged at his jacket-cuffs.
‘Not in the slightest.’
McWhinnie looked disappointed.
003. A group of literary critics is far more assiduous in unravelling clues, deciphering plots and analysing subconscious motives than any provincial constabulary.
004. For him scholarship had been a refuge: he valued literature not as a reflection of reality, but as an escape route from it. … [In literature] nature was methodised, the poet was always a prince, and the scholar found humself elevated to an all-powerful magus reducing the randomness of events to a dream of traditional order.
005. He had long ago abandoned the idea that there was any point in reading books. Perfectly useless–that was their essential charm. He’d given up reading new books altogether. Someone, he couldn’t remember who, had recommended he read a novel by some Jewish chap. Turned out to be all about wanking. ‘Whacking-off’ he called it. Summed up modern literature perfectly. [My sentiments exactly about Portnoy’s Complaint.]

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers
-001- […they introduced a fifteen year old named Hilary. Her parents died and she’s spending some time with the man who’s cleaning the bells and they’re talking about what she’s going to do with her life. He says she could probably get into Oxford and her uncle will see to it.] She says, ‘Yes–and I’m going to get a scholarship, anyway. And I don’t want money. I’d rather make my own living. Miss Bowler says she doesn’t think anything of a woman who can’t be independent.’ (Miss Bowler was the English mistress and the idol of the moment.)
-002- ‘I’m going to be a writer, Dad. Miss Bowler says she wouldn’t wonder if I’d got it in me.’
‘Oh, what are you going to write? Poetry?’
‘Well, perhaps. But I don’t suppose that pays very well. I’ll write novels. Best-seller. The sort that everybody goes potty over. Not just bosh ones, but like The Constant Nymph.’
‘You’ll want a bit of experience before you can write novels, old girl.’
‘Rot, Daddy. You don’t want experience for writing novels. People write them at Oxford and they sell like billy-ho. All about how awful everything was at school.’
‘I see, and when you leave Oxford, you write one about how awful everything was at college.’
‘That’s the idea. I can do that on my head.’
-003- Hilary Thorpe: ‘…I mean, if you’re once interested in a thing it makes it seem less real. That’s not the right word, though.’
‘Less personal?’
‘Yes, that’s what I mean. You being to imagine how it all happened and gradually it gets to feel more like something you’ve made up.’
Wimsey: ‘If that’s the way your mind works, you’ll be a writer one day…Because you have the creative imagination, which works outwards, till finally you will be able to stand outside your own experience and see it as something you have made, existing independently of yourself. You’re lucky.’
‘Do you really think so?’ Hilary looked excited.
‘Yes–but your luck will come more at the end of your life than at the beginning because the other sort of people won’t understand the way your mind works. They will start by thinking you dreamy, romantic and then they’ll be surprised to discover that you are really hard and heartless. They’ll be quite wrong both times–but they won’t ever know it and you won’t know it at first and it’ll worry you.
‘But that’s what the girls say at school. How did you know?…Though they’re all idiots—mostly, that is.’
‘Most people are,’ said Wimsey, gravely, ‘but it isn’t kind to tell them so. I expect you do tell them so. Have a heart; they can’t help it.’
-004- [Then there’s a section where someone talks about going up into the bell chamber during a violent rainshower.]
-005- [Description of the sound of church bells:] … it drifted through the streaming rain with an aching and intolerable melancholy, like the noise of the bells of a drowned city pulsing up through the overwhelming sea.

The Nirvana Plague by Gary Glass
001. Nobody knows that nobody’s normal.
002. But the mind would rather be in a strange world than a random world.
003. Perhaps he wasn’t really there. Perhaps he was really just a camera, a viewing machine, seeing whatever happened to pass in whatever direction he happened to be pointed.
004. …she’d always been mocking herself when she mocked everyone else.
005. She was still shaking with anger when she screeched to a stop in the visitor’s parking lot, and drilled into the lobby like the Light Brigade into the Valley of Death.
006. ‘How’s that thing about somebody’s cat go? The thing about a cat in a box with a vial of poison. Is the cat dead or alive, or half dead and half alive, or neither dead nor alive?’
‘Some guy named Schrodinger stuffed a cat in a box and sealed it up. Nobody could prove the cat was dead, so he got away with it.’
‘Why didn’t they just open the box and look?’
‘They were all physicists.’
‘Ah. Well, that makes sense then.’
007. She was smarter than he was. And cooler. He often envied her composure. He affected professionalism. She inhabited it.

Notes on a Scandal: What Was She Thinking? by Zoe Heller
001. Any species of sexual attraction that you can’t find documented on a seaside postcard fails the health test as far as these people are concerned. Any sexual arrangement existing outside the narrow channels of family newspaper convention is relegated to a great, sinister parenthesis of kinky “antics.” Journalists are educated people, aren’t they? College graduates, some of them. How did their minds get so small? Have they never desired anyone outside the age range that local law and custom deemed suitable? Never experienced an impulse that fell outside the magic circle of orthodoxy?
002. For most people, honesty is such an unusual departure from their standard modus operandi—such an aberration in their workaday mendacity—that they feel obliged to alert you when a moment of sincerity is coming on. “To be completely honest,” they say, or “To tell you the truth,” or “Can I be straight?” Often they want to extract vows of discretion from your before going any further. “This is strictly between us, right? … You must promise not to tell anyone…” Sheba does none of that.
003. Women observing other women tend to be engrossed in the details—the bodily minutiae, the clothing particulars. We get so caught up in the lone dimple, the excessive ears, the missing button, that we often lag behind men in organising the individual features into an overall impression. I mention this by way of explaining why it was only now, as I watched Bill, that the fact of Sheba’s beauty occurred to me. Of course, I thought.
004. She was perfectly pleasant to her colleagues, which is to say she exchanged all the standard, weather-based pleasantries. But she did not automatically gravitate to another female teacher and start swapping autobiographies. Or put her name down to join the St George’s contingent on the next march against government spending cuts. Or contribute to sarcastic group discussions about the headmaster. Her resistance to all the usual initiation rituals aroused a certain amount of suspicion among the other teachers. The women tended to the opinion that Sheba was “stuck up,” while the men favoured the theory that she was “cold.” Bill Rumer, widely acknowledged as the staff expert on such matters, observed on more than one occasion that “there was nothing wrong with her that a good boning wouldn’t cure.”
I took Sheba’s failure to forge an instantaneous friendship as an encouraging sign. In my experience, newcomers—particularly female ones—are far too eager to pin their colours to the mast of any staff room coterie that will have them. Jennifer Dodd, who used to be my closest friend at the school, spent her first three weeks at St George’s buried in the welcoming bosoms of Mary Horsely and Diane Nebbins. Mary and Diane are two hippies from the maths department. The both carry packets of “women’s tea” in their handbags and use jagged lumps of rock crystal in lieu of antiperspirant. They were entirely ill-suited—temperament-wise, humour-wise, worldview-wise—to be Jennifer’s friends. But they happened to get to her first, and Jennifer was so grateful for someone being nice to her that she cheerfully undertook to ignore their soy milk mumbo jumbo. I daresay she would have plighted her troth to a Moonie during her first week at St George’s, if the Moonie had been quick enough off the mark.
Sheba displayed no such new girl jitters and, for this, I admired her. She did not exempt me from her general aloofness. Owing to my seniority at St George’s and the fact that I am more formal in manner than most of my colleagues, I am used to being treated with a certain deference. But Sheba seemed to be oblivious of my status. There was little indication, for a long time, that she really saw me at all. Yet, in spite of this, I found myself possessed by a strange certainty that we would one day be friends.
In the meantime, I watched from afar and listened with interest to the gossip that circulated about her in the staff room. For most of the staff, Sheba’s dignified self-containment acted are as sort of force field, repelling the usual impertinent enquiries about home life and political allegiance. But elegance loses its power in the presence of the properly stupid, and there were a few who were not deterred. From time to time, I would spot certain staff members zooming in on Sheba in the car park or playground, stunning her into submission with their vulgar curiosity. They never achieved the immediate intimacy that they were seeking. But they usually managed to extract some piece of information as a consolation prize.
005. Theresa looked at me with the sullen expression that so many people of her generation wear when attempts to assail their ignorance. “Uh-huh,” she said.
006. After the half-term holiday, I desisted from all the little genialities with which I had been attempting to semaphore my goodwill towards Sheba. I deliberately allowed my warm feelings to curdle into contempt. Occasionally, I confess, I went too far and stooped to some slightly childish insults.
007. I have never enjoyed this kind of women’s talk—the hopelessness of the other sex and all that. Sooner or later, it always seems to degenerate into tittering critiques of the male member. So silly. So beneath women. And, funnily enough, the females who go in for this low-grade misandry are usually the ones most in thrall to men.
008. There is, I see now, such a thing as the tyranny of the humble person—the person who nods and watches quietly while you babble and show off and shout too loudly and generally make a fool of yourself. How much healthier to have a friend who isn’t afraid to take you on, to tell you what’s what!
009. This is my sister’s real attachment to God, I think: the accessories. Years ago, before she married Dave, we travelled to Europe together one summer and paid a visit to Lourdes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her as happy as when she was trolling through the Lourdes gift shops. She liked the amputees and spastics lining up to be dangled into puddles of holy water. She enjoyed the sing-alongs and the torchlit processions. But it was the trinkets, the T-shirts, the gewgaws that really popped her cork. It’s a shame, I often think, that Marjorie didn’t end up a Catholic. She would have got such a charge out of rosary beads.
010. The God business is just a diversion for her—a bit of Marie Antoinetteish dabbling in someone else’s charming rituals. I daresay if my sister and her family had been devotees of the Santeria cult, she would have joined in just as cheerfully, toasting effigies and sacrificing goats.
011. It is bizarre, really, that spinsterhood is considered the uniquely pathetic destiny, when bachelors are the ones so fatally ill-equipped for a spouseless life.
012. The number of secrets I receive is in inverse proportion to the number of secrets anyone expects me to have of my own.
013. There are certain people in whom you can detect the seeds of madness—seeds that have remained dormant only because the people in question have lived relatively comfortable, middle-class lives. They function perfectly well in the world, but you can imagine, given a nasty parent, or a prolonged bout of unemployment, how their potential for craziness might have been realised—how their seeds might have sprouted little green shoots of weirdness, or even, with the right sort of antinurture, blossomed into full-blown lunacy.
014. Evil will out, my mother used to say, but I rather think she was wrong about that. Evil can stay in, minding its own business for eternity, if the situation doesn’t arise.

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse
-001- ‘Don’t you sometimes have the feeling that people, deep inside, have another self that doesn’t resemble them?’
-002- When you saw them together, you would say that they looked alike… You might take them for brother and sister. But only to a slight degree, for far from being indifferent toward each other, the way old cousins can be by virtue of looking alike, these two were intrigued by one another and were always so happy in each other’s company that they hardly noticed anyone else.
-003- …in the piles of books waiting to be examined that sprung up here and there like baroque columns.
-004- I expect a great deal from novels. I’ve been disappointed so often that over the last ten years or so I haven’t even dared to open a new book. I wait for time to do the sorting. I only read classics now.
-005- He had become extraordinarily discerning. From the very first pages, he could spot a good book, and he would read all of it. As for the others, he would devote no more time to them than they deserved.
-006- You have just confirmed to me that one of the most fortunate purposes of literature is to bring like-minded people together and get them talking.
-007- …he mentally smoothed his face…
-008- He had nothing but scorn for the passage of time, in a sort of desire for eternity–since eternity is not time that has become endless but the opposite, time-suspended, non-time…
-009- …writing, no matter what the subject, however fictitious you think it as, at best it’s sitting down to face yourself, at worst you’re fighting yourself, in any case you have to take stock of your limits.

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