Autodidact: self-taught


Society of Others

by V. L. Craven

Society of Others The Society of Others  by William Nicholson
-01- I don’t want anything. I have the animal needs, but as soon as the needs are met they go away, and everything’s the way it was before. That stuff is necessary. We’re not talking desire.
And I don’t even want money. What’s the point? You see something you want to buy, you get excited about having it, you buy it, the excitement fades. Everything’s the way it was before. I’ve seen through that game. They make you want things so they get your money. Then they take your money and then they’ve got it, and what do they do? They use it to buy things someone else has made them want. For a few moments they think they’re happy, and then it all fades and everything’s the way it was before. How stupid can you get? It’s like fish. Fish swim all day finding food to give them energy to swim about all day. It makes me laugh. These people who hurry about all day making money to sell each other things. Anyone with eyes could tell them their lives are meaningless and they weren’t getting any happier.
-02- [My father] says, ‘There’s a big wide world out there. You’re not going anywhere so long as you stay shut up in your room.’
I say, ‘There’s nowhere to go.’
He hates that. My negative attitude. I could tell him he’s not going anywhere either. But why pop his balloon.
I like my room. I said before I don’t want anything, but this isn’t entirely true. I want my own room. I don’t much care what’s in it so long as it has a door I can shut and lock so people don’t come asking me to do things. I expect maybe I’ll spend the rest of my life in my room and at the end I’ll just die here and no one will find me and that’s just fine with me.
The big wide world: First of all, it’s not so big and wide. Really the world is only as big as your experiences of it, which is not big at all. And what sort of world is it? I would characterise it as remote, uninterested, unpredictable, dangerous and unjust. When I was small I thought the world was like my parents, only bigger. I thought it watched me and clapped when I danced. This is not so. The world is not watching and will never stop. My father doesn’t get thig, he’s still dancing. It makes me quite sad to see him.
Cat says my world lacks depth and is merely bitterness. I dispute this. I feel no bitterness. I see things as they are. Nature is selfish. All creatures kill to survive. Love is a mechanism to propagate the species. Beauty is a trick that fades. Friendship is an arrangement for mutual advantage. Goodness is not rewarded and evil is not punished. Religion is superstition. Death is annihilation. And as for God, if he exists at all he stopped caring for humankind centuries ago. Wouldn’t you?
So why leave my room?
Society of Others -03- For as long as I can remember I’ve been at some kind of school. I don’t believe I learned anything at all. It was like half-listening to the safety announcement, the kind they give you on planes before take off. The voice that says this is really important and to please listen carefully, but you still don’t listen because it’s not going to happen and if it does you’re dead anyway.
-04- Anyway my father points out to me all the great opportunities there are out there for me, but neglects to name them. I fill in the gaps. I could join a corporation and sell things I don’t want to have myself to people who don’t need them. I could be a teacher and tell things I don’t want to know to people who don’t want to hear. I could be a solider and kill people. That would be all right if it weren’t dangerous.
-05- …things that are out of reach are desirable precisely because there’s no chance you’ll get what you want. Getting what you want is to be avoided at all costs. Ask for the moon.
-06- My mother’s upset because I don’t come down for meals anymore. It’s not the food I mind, it’s her face watching me as if it hurts her just to see me eat. Or not eat, I’m not much of an eater. I prefer to sort it out for myself, without all the fuss and conversation. So long as there’s bread and cheese or a bowl of cereal I’m okay.
-07- Actually, I’m a disappointment to everyone who cares about me… They used to want me to have hobbies and ambitions and a great objective in life. Now they just want me to get a job.
My mother says, ‘All I want is for you to be happy. I can’t believe you’re happy living like this.’
What I want to say to her, and to my father and grandfather and Sheile is: Why must I be happy for you? It’s like a weight they’ve tied to my back, this requirement that I be happy. It’s not for me, it’s for them. They want to stop feeling they’ve failed me.
-08- My inertia is nothing to do with drugs. It springs from the true source, the mother lode, a clear-eyed awareness of the nature of existence. Life is hard and then you die. That’s just about it. That’s how it is. That won’t change. This is the closest I get to satisfaction.
-09- He gazes at me and taps his teeth with one fingernail. He is running through the options open to him. You can always tell when people are processing like this, it’s almost as if a little symbol appears on their face, an hour-glass or a spinning disc, like on a computer screen.
-10- ‘Television is the baby-sitting for the people. You who watch television, you are the baby.’ … so it’s not high culture, but you can’t be burning rocket fuel all week. Sometimes you need to coast. … He starts to tell me about this novel he’s writing.
I should have guessed. People who hate TV always turn out to be writing a novel. They don’t like the competition. They don’t like the way everyone watches TV and no one reads novels. So why don’t they go and write for television? Because they’re not smart enough. You can work on a novel for years and all that time you can tell yourself every day you’re a genius, but go work in television or movies and pretty soon someone wants to see what you’re doing and then of course you’re fucked because it’s actually crap. People who write novels never show them to anybody. They’re like aging women who’ve stopped looking in mirrors. That way you’re always young, always beautiful.
-11- This is without a doubt the way to go. If you want to eat countryside and passes a carefree attitude to personal injury, motorbike travel is for you. …Fortunately I’m not called upon to stop because the only way I’ve found how to brake is completely which would not be good at this speed. I can hear Eckhard whimpering behind me, due I imagine to an exaggerated attachment to life, which I do not share… So long as we keep moving at this speed which I guess to be roughly a thousand miles an hour why should we fall off?
-12- …and the people unloop from the pews like a golden hose being dragged behind us. Society of Others
-13- It must be question one on her list. She’s not bright enough to move past at until it’s been answered. I meet people like this all the time. They’re expecting a certain kind of answer from you and if you say something else they simply don’t hear you. Your words have no place ready to receive them in their brain, so it’s like you haven’t spoken.
-14- All at once, the studio light go out. I’m trapped in a darkened studio with a wannabe television star. This is not a situation for which I’m equipped.
-15- All this is quite exhilarating. For the first time in my life I am the beneficiary of a totally unfair system. You don’t read much about the young Hitler or the young Stalin dreaming of going into a clothes shop and picking out all the gear they want and not even looking at the prices, but it is definitely a motivator for the wannabe dictator. Actually, those guys went several steps further and invented their own uniforms and had them made for them by top tailors. Seize power, look cool. Fun with nation states.
-16- The key she gives me has a lump of metal attached to it the size of Hong Kong. I love that. It’s supposed to stop you leaving town with the key in your pocket but to me it’s the material signifier of the hotel status. If you can hardly life the key you’re in the right economic bracket.
-17- It must be one of the things that happens to people when they get old and wise. They can’t stop themselves spraying their wisdom about the place. All you can do is keep nodding and not get too close.
-18- Cello’s gentle concession does not satisfy me. I want opposition or surrender.
‘So you’re agreeing with me?’
‘Not agreeing, no, I’m listening.’
‘I thought this was supposed to be an argument.’
‘Not at all. Arguments are for winning and losing. What use is that?’
I’m a little taken aback by this question. I had rather supposed that winning was the point of more or less everything.
‘If you win an argument, that proves you’re right.’
‘Not at all. It only proves you’re better at arguing.’
‘So that’s good.’
‘How is it good? It seems to me that it gets you no further than you were before. We might as well stand in the rain and piss at each other.’
-19- ‘If we’re talking about me, the answer has to be that nothing’s a big deal.’
‘I think back to my room, with the blind down and the mute television flickering away and the door locked. ‘Nothing.’
‘You are telling me that nothing is important to you?’
Society of Others ‘Well, I don’t want to get hurt and so on. But if we’re talking religion and philosophy and all that meaning-of-life shit—Sorry.’ I didn’t want to give offence.
‘No, please. You choose our words for a reason. That meaning-of-life shit. It makes you angry.’
‘Not angry. I just can’t see it.’
‘You would say you live a happy life?’
‘No, I wouldn’t say that.’
‘You would like to lead a happy life?’
‘Sure. Who wouldn’t?’
‘So what stands in your way?’
‘The real world.’
‘The real world makes you unhappy?’
‘It doesn’t exactly make me unhappy. It just doesn’t make me happy. I’m kind of neutral.’
‘So. What is the happiest moment of your life so far?’
[Tells story about riding a bike with his father] As I’m talking I find what I really liked about it and it seems almost too simple… ‘But it’s not like it gives my life meaning or anything.’
‘No, I understand that. This meaning-of-life shit. It’s going to have to be very big shit indeed to do it for you, I think.’
‘Well, life’s a big thing. I mean, like, existence and everything. You can’t make that meaningful with one bike ride.’
‘I can,’ he says, ‘It’s you who can’t.’
-20- It’s funny about people’s faces.If you look at them long enough they stop being beautiful or ugly and become just themselves.
-21- Oh, I have nothing to teach you. It’s more a matter of throwing a little light on knowledge you already possess, don’t you think? All of us have more rooms in our house than we inhabit.’



by V. L. Craven

Saturday by Ian McEwan
-01- Solitude and work were less threatening to her inner world than kisses.
-02- Happiness seemed like a betrayal of principle, but happiness was unavoidable.
-03- Who could ever reckon up the damage done to love and friendship and all hopes of happiness by a surfeit or depletion of this or that neurotransmitter.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt S
001. though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.
002. 30…the extremism of the offer was appealing as well. His students—if they were any mark of his tutelage—were imposing enough, and different as they all were they shared a certain coolness, a cruel, mannered charm when was not modern in the least but had a strange cold breath of the ancient world: they were magnificent creatures, such eyes, such hands, such looks—sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferebat. I envied them, and found them attractive; moreover this strange quality, far from being natural, gave every indication of having been intensely cultivated. … Studied or not, I wanted to be like them. It was heady to think that these qualities were acquired ones and that, perhaps, that was the way I might learn them.
003. 42-3 Dr Blind (pronouned “Blend”) was about ninety years old and had taught, for the past fifty years, a course called “Invariant Subspaces” which was noted for its monotony and virtually absolute unintelligibility, as well as for the fact that the final exam, as long as anyone could remember, had consisted of the same single yes-or-no question. The question was three pages long but the answer was always “Yes.” That was all you needed to know to pass Invariant Subspaces.
He was, if possible, even a bigger windbag than Dr Roland. Together, they were like one of those superhero alliances in the comic books, invincible, an unconquerable confederation of boredom and confusion.
004. 50 “And you like [Henry] ?”
“Certainly, certainly. He’s a hard fellow to live with, though. Hates noise, hates company, hates a mess. None of this bringing your date back to the room to listen to a couple Art Pepper records, if you know what I’m trying to get at.”
“I think he’s sort of rude.”
Bunny shrugged. “That’s his way. See, his mind doesn’t work the same way yours and mine do. He’s always up in the clouds with Plato or something. Works too hard, takes himself too seriously, studying Sanskrit and Coptic and those other nutty languages. …”
“How many languages does he know?”
“I lost count. Seven or eight…”
“Where’s he from?”
He said this in such a deadpan way I thought he was joking and I laughed.
Bunny raised an amused eyebrow. “What? You thought he was from Buckingham Palace or something?”
I shrugged, still laughing. Henry was so peculiar, it was hard to imagine him being from anyplace.
005. 57 “Well,” said Bunny chummily, his voice booming in the tense silence, “I’d apologize for dragging you away from your book if you hadn’t brought it with you. What you got there? Any good?”
Without a word, Henry handed it to him. The lettering on the front was in some Oriental language. Bunny stared at it for a moment, then gave it back. “That’s nice,” he said faintly.
006. 59 Though polite enough, they seemed wary and slightly puzzled, as if I were from some country with unfamiliar, eccentric customs, which made it necessary for them to take great caution in order to not startle or offend.
007. 66 I moved relentlessly over the evening, back and forth, straining to remember exact words, telling inflections, any subtle insults or kindnesses I might’ve missed, and my mind—quite willingly—supplied various distortions.
008. 75 All my life, people have mistaken my shyness for sullenness, snobbery, bad temper of one sort or another. ‘Stop looking for superior!’ my father sometimes used to shout at me when I was eating, watching television, or otherwise minding my own business. But this facial cast of mine (that’s what I think it is, really, a way my mouth has or turning down at the corners, it has little to do with my actual moods) has worked as often to my favour to my disadvantage. Months after I got to know the five of them, I found to my surprise that at the start they’d been nearly as bewildered by me as I by them. It never occurred to me that my behaviour could seem to them anything but awkward and provincial, certainly not that it would appear as enigmatic as it in fact did; why, they eventually asked me, hadn’t I told anyone anything about myself?
009. 79 Grown children (an oxymoron, I realize) veer instinctively to extremes; the young scholar is much more a pedant than his older counterpart.
010. 80 [About the classics clique] [They were intrigued] by the fact that I read papers and watched news on television from time to time (a habit which seemed to them an outrageous eccentricity, peculiar to me alone; none of them were the least bit interested in anything that went on in the world, and their ignorance of current events and even recent history was rather astounding. Once, over dinner, Henry was quite startled t learn from me that men had walked on the moon. “No,” he said, putting down his fork.
“It’s true,” chorused the rest, who had somehow managed to pick this up along the way.
“I don’t believe it.”
“I saw it,” said Bunny. “It was on television.”
“How did they get there? When did this happen?”)
011. 91 Henry and Francis were further out: Francis talking, gesticulating wildly in his white robe and Henry with his hands clasped behind his back, Satan listening patiently to the rantings of some desert prophet.
012. 297 [Referring to Greek lit] There was a tradition among the ancients that things were very cheap in Hell.
013. 213 [Bunny] tried to insult and belittle [Camilla] in a variety of ways, most of which struck wide of the mark. She was impervious to slights about her appearance; met his eye, unblinking, as he told the most vulgar and humiliating jokes; laughed if he attempted to insult her taste or intelligence; ignored his frequent discourses [about women being inferior to men.]
014. 215 An interesting question: what was I thinking, as I watched his eyes widen with startled incredulity (“come on, fellas, you’re joking, right?”) for what would be the very last time? Not of the fact that I was helping to save my friends, certainly not: nor of fear; nor guilt. But little things. Insults, innuendos, petty cruelties. The hundreds of small, unavenged humiliations which had been rising in me for months. It was of them I thought, and nothing more. It was because of them that I was able to watch him at all, without the slightest tinge of pity or regret, as he teetered on the cliff’s edge for one long moment—arms flailing, eyes rolling, a silent-movie comedian slipping on a banana peel—before he toppled backwards, and fell to his death.
015. 218 “I mean,” [Henry] said, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose, “that strictly in terms of virulence there are any number of excellent poisons, most of them far superior to this. The woods will be soon full of foxglove and monkshood. I could get all the arsenic I needed from flypaper. And even herbs that aren’t common here—good God, the Borgias would have wept to see the health-food store I found in Brattleboro last week. Hellebore, mandrake, pure oil of wormwood… I suppose people will buy anything if they think it’s natural. The wormwood they were selling as organic insect repellent, as if that made it safer than the stuff at the supermarket. One bottle could have killed an army.”
016. 228-9 Julian had a polite but implacable contempt for Judeo-Christian tradition in virtually all its forms. He would deny this if confronted, citing evasively his affection for Dante and Giotto, but anything overtly religious filled him with a pagan alarm; and I believe that like Pliny, whom he resembled in so many respects, he secretly thought it to be a degenerate cult carried to extravagant lengths.
017. 265 [After killing Bunny Richard calls Henry.] “When you’re worried about something,” said Henry abruptly, “have you ever tried thinking in a different language?”
“It slows you down. Keeps your thoughts from running wild. A good discipline in any circumstance. Or you might try doing what the Buddhists do.”
“In the practice of Zen there is an exercise called zazen—similar, I think, to the Theravadic practice of vipassana. One sits facing a blank wall. No matter the emotion one feels, no matter how strong or violent, one remains motionless. Facing the wall. The discipline, of course, is in continuing to sit.”
There was a silence, during which I struggled for language to adequately express what I thought of this goofball advice.
018. I knew then, and know now, virtually nothing about Julian’s life outside of the classroom, which is perhaps what lent such a tantalizing breath of mystery to everything he said or did. No doubt his personal life was a flawed as anyone’s, but the only side of himself he ever allowed us to see was polished to such a high gloss of perfection that it seemed when he was away from us he must lead an existence too rarefied for me to even imagine.
019. 327 “I hate Gucci,” said Francis.
“Do you?” said Henry, glancing up from his reverie. “Really? I think it’s rather grand.”
“Come on, Henry.”
“Well, it’s so expensive, but it’s so ugly too, isn’t it? i think they make it ugly on purpose. And yet people buy it out of sheer perversity.”
020. 346 [Henry] was talking on and on in a low voice about Schliemann’s Ilios, the fingertips of his big square hands on the table’s edge as if it were a Ouija board. When I’d lived with him over the winter, he would sometimes go on for hours on these didactic monologues, reeling off a pedantic and astonishingly accurate torrent of knowledge wit the slow, transfixed calm of a subject under hypnosis. He was talking about the excavation of Hissarlik: “a terrible place, a cursed place,” he said dreamily—cities and cities buried beneath each other, cities torn down, cities burnt and their bricks melted to glass…a terrible place, he said absently, a cursed place, nests of tiny brown adders of the sort that the Greeks called antelion and thousands and thousands of little owl-headed death gods (goddesses, really, some hideous prototype of Athena) staring fanatical and rigid from the engraved illustrations.
021. 359 Whatever else one may say about guilt, it certainly lends one diabolical powers of invention…
022. 463 [Henry addressing Richard] “You don’t feel a great deal of emotion for other people, do you?”
I was taken aback. “What are you talking about?” I said. “Of course I do.”
“Do you?” He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think so. It doesn’t matter,” he said, after a long, tense pause. “I don’t, either.”
“What are you trying to get at?”
He shrugged. “Nothing,” he said. “Except that my life, for the most part, has been very stale and colorless. Dead, I mean. The world has always been an empty place to me. I was incapable of enjoying even the simplest things. I felt dead in everything I did.” He brushed the dirt from his hands. “But then it changed,” he said.” “The night I killed that man.” … “It was the most important night of my life,” he said calmly. “It enabled me to do what I’ve always wanted most.”
“Which is?”
“To live without thinking.” … “Before, I was paralyzed, though I didn’t really know it,” he said. “It was because i thought too much, lived too much in the mind. It was hard to make decisions. I felt immobilized.”
“And now?”
“Now,” he said, “now, I know that I can do anything that I want.”
023. 465 Things which were odd, by Julian’s definition, often turned out to be amusingly mundane. By his own choice, he had so little contact with the outside world that he frequently considered the commonplace to be bizarre: an automatic-teller machine, for instance, or some new peculiarity in the supermarket—cereal shaped like vampires, or unrefrigerated yogurt sold in pop-top cans. All of us enjoyed hearing about there little forays of his into the twentieth century, so Francis and I pressed him to tell us what now had happened.
024. 477 His voice chilled me to the bone. Though he and Henry had in common a distinct coldness of manner—sometimes, around them, the very temperature seemed to drop—I had always thought Henry’s coldness essential, to the marrow, and Julian’s only a veneer for what was, at bottom, a warm and kind-hearted nature. But the twinkle in Julian’s eye, as I looked at him now, was mechanical and dead. It was as if the charming theatrical curtain had dropped away and I saw him for the first time as he really was: not the benign old sage, the indulgent and protective good-parent of my dreams, but ambiguous, a moral neutral, whose beguiling trappings concealed a being watchful, capricious and heartless.
025. 480 George Orwell—a keen observer of what lay behind the glitter of constructed facades, social and otherwise—had met Julian on several occasions, and had not liked him. To a friend he wrote: “Upon meeting Julian Morrow, one has the impression that he is a man of extraordinary sympathy and warmth. But what you call his ‘Asiatic serenity’ is, I think, a mask for great coldness. The face one shows him he invariably reflects back at one, creating the illusion of warmth and depth when in fact he is brittle and shallow as a mirror….

S “The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad
001. Here and there gleams of a few scattered pieces of silver marked the windings of the great river; and on the nearest of them, just within the bar, the tug steaming right into the land became lost to my sight, hull and funnel and masts, as though the impassive earth had swallowed her up without an effort, without a tremor.
002. I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.
003.  …for exactitude in small matters is the very soul of discipline. [PN: Very similar to Aurelius 'Hour by hour' meditation]
004. His expression was concentrated, meditative, under the inspecting light of the lamp I held up to his face; such as a man thinking hard in solitude might wear.
005. He was one of those creatures that are just simmering all the time with a silly sort of wickedness. Miserable devils that have no business to live at all.
006. And yet, haggard as he appeared, he looked always perfectly self-controlled, more than calm—almost invulnerable.
007. And in the same whisper, as if we two whenever we talked had to say things to each other which were not fit for the world to hear…

Seven Wives, Seven Prisons by L.A. Abbott
001.  The ill-success of my efforts, hitherto, to secure one, and my consequent sufferings were all lost upon me–experience, bitter experience, had taught me nothing.
002. for it is human nature, now that I could do what I pleased, I pleased to do a great deal..
003. All this was very pleasant to reflect upon; but do not believe I thought even then, that the reason for this change in my circumstances, and changes for the better, was simply because I had minded my business and had let women alone.

“The Shout” by Robert Graves
001.  He wrote a handbook for writers called The Reader Over Your Shoulder
002.   [From the introduction by Christopher Isherwood] Horror is always of its cause; terror never is. That is precisely what makes terror terrifying.

["The Shout"] is also partly about Cricket, and this alone would warrant its inclusion in a book of English stories. Better still, it is about Cricket at a lunatic asylum–which is how the National Game often appeared to me, who had difficulty in taking it sane and seriously.]
003.  ”…In weather like this he is apt to bowl at the batsman’s head. He is not insane in the usual sense, merely magnificently ill-tempered. The doctor’s can do nothing with him. He wants shooting, really.”

S Snow by Orhan Pamuk
001. After a lifetime in which every experience of love was touched by shame and suffering, the prospect of falling in love filled Ka with an intense, almost instinctive dread.
002. Ka thought it strangely depressing that the suicide girls had had to struggle to find a private moment to kill themselves. Even after swallowing their pills, even as they lay quietly dying, they’d had to share their rooms with others. Ka had grown up in Nisantas reading Western literature, and in his own fantasies of suicide he had always thought it important to have a great deal of time and space; at the very least you needed a room you could stay in for days without any knocking on the door. In his fantasies, suicide was a solemn ceremony with sleeping pills and whiskey, a final act performed alone and of one’s own free will; in fact, every time he had ever imagined doing away with himself, it was the indispensable loneliness of it that scared him off.
003. Rising up inside him was that feeling he had always known as a child and as a young man at moments of extraordinary happiness: a prospect of future misery and hopelessness.
004. “He’ll speak to you, and then all of a sudden he’ll throw himself on the floor. He’ll take some ordinary thing you said and say how wise it is; he’ll insist you’re a real man. Some people even think he’s making fun of them at this point! But that’s His Excellency’s special gift. He does it so convincingly you end up believing that he really thinks what you’ve said is wise and that he believes as you do with all his heart. he acts as if there is something great inside you. After a while, you begin to see this inner beauty too, and because you have never before sensed the beauty within you, you think it must be the presence of God, and this makes you happy. In other words, the world becomes a beautiful place when you’re near this man. And you’ll love our esteemed sheikh because he’s brought you to this happiness. All the while, another voice is whispering inside you that this is all a game the sheikh is playing and you are a miserable idiot. But as far as I could figure out from what Muhtar told me, it seems you no longer have the strength to be that miserable idiot. You’re so wretchedly unhappy that all you want it for god to save you. Now, your mind—which knows nothing of your soul’s desires—objects a little but not enough; you embark on the road the sheikh has shown you because it is only road in the world that will let you stand on your own two feet. Sheikh Efendi’s greatest gift is to make that wretch sitting before him feel special, even more as one with the universe than His Excellency himself. To most men in Kars this feels like a miracle, for they know only too well than no one else in Turkey could be wretched, poor, and unsuccessful as they. So you come to believe, first in the sheikh and then in the long-forgotten teachings of your Islamic faith. Contrary to what they think in Germany and the pronouncements of secularist intellectuals, this is not a bad thing. You can become like everyone else, you can become one with the people, and, even if it’s only for a little while, you can escape from unhappiness.”
“I’m not unhappy,” said Ka.
‘In fact, someone that unhappy is not unhappy at all. Even the most miserable people have hidden consolations and hopes they secretly embrace. It’s not like Istanbul; there are no mocking nonbelievers. Things are simpler here.”
005. “Then confess to me what you hid from the police this morning. Tell me of the guilt you hide deep in your heart.”
“I think I may be starting to believe in God here,” Ka said, with a smile. “It’s something I may be hiding even from myself.”
“You’re deceiving yourself! Even if you did believe in God, it would make no sense to believe alone. You’d have to believe in him that same way the poor do; you’d have to become one of them. It’s only by eating what they eat, living where they live, laughing at the same jokes, and getting angry whenever they do that you can believe in their God, If you’re leading an utterly different life, you can’t be worshiping the same God they are. God is fair enough to know it’s not a question of reason or logic but how you live your life. …”
006. “but she doesn’t trust you. Trust takes time. Impatient men like you don’t fall in love with a woman, they take possession of her.”
007. Contrary to what the West seems to think, it is not poverty that brings us so close to God; it’s the fact that no one is more curious than we are to find out why we are here on earth and what will happen to us in the next world.
008. They were a happy family, but that didn’t mean they were flashing smiles every other minute, as we do here when there’s nothing to smile about. Maybe this is why they were happy. For them life was a serious business to be dealt with responsibly. It wasn’t a dead-end struggle or a painful ordeal the way it is here. But their gravity of purpose permeated every aspect of their lives.
009. …he also understood that his intellectual pretensions, political activities, and cultural snobberies had brought him to an arid existence that cut him off from the feelings this soap opera was now provoking in him—and worst of all is was his own stupid fault.
010. To express beliefs without conviction was liberating.
011. “Mankind’s greatest error,” continued the young Kurd, “the biggest deception of the past thousand years is this: to confuse poverty with stupidity.”
012. But Ka reserved his bile for a society that so easily forgot its writer and poets: For this reason he thought the smartest thing to do was retreat into a corner and try to find some happiness.
013. All over the world—even in America—newspapers tailor the news to their reader’s desires. If your readers want nothing but lies from you, who in the world is going to sell papers that tell the truth?
014. It wasn’t happiness he was after—this was very clear to him following his third glass of raki; he would even go so far as to say that he preferred to be unhappy. The important thing was to share the hopelessness, to create a little nest in which two people could live together, keeping the rest of the world at bay.
015. I have no desire to play the hero. Heroic dreams are the consolation of the unhappy. After all, when people like us say we’re being heroic, it usually means we’re about to kill each other—or kill ourselves.
016. …those given to verbal abuse are often obsessed by a need to know how much their lovers loved them…

S Spiderweb by Penelope Lively
001 p4: I advise silent neutrality, whatever your natural reactions may be.
002 p8: …silent…who seldom spoke except to each other because they knew the rest of the world to be against them.
003. p14: In her trade you travelled most fruitfully when you travelled alone.
004. p15: …Read with luxurious eclecticism, pander to ignorance, learn about things of which she knew nothing.
005. p28: … I never was one who depended on a nice chat over a garden fence.
006. p58: I am stuck with the tiresome human tendency toward emotional response.
007. 62: …There was a appalling imbalance of feeling. It was like associations in the past with men who had fallen for her but for whom she could feel nothing more positive than a mild affection.
008. p67: I get on a storm with the young. But I’d rather they were someone else’s. [Child rearing] is simply a system to ensure a controllable labour supply. … Children are useful disposable goods.
009. p68: We don’t conform to social expectations. Unmarried, no children. We’re the sort that would have been burned as witches, in other times and places. Or consulted as oracles. You have to pick your moment, if you’re inclined to non-conformity.
010. 70: Not happenstance, she thinks, not happenstance at all, but the way that the future is implicit witin the present, did one but know. The signals are already there but we cannot read them.
011. 76: You are…carrying around a mental notepad and pen—trash them. Join the human race.
012. p78: …interpretation is distorted by expectations.
013. 88: She is indeed in love. This means that she is self-absorbed, unobservant and not herself at all.
014. 90: She thought of the force—lines out there—of tacit understanding, of mutual incomprehension, of tolerance of hostility. Those who operated in shiftless isolation…
015. p94: We are defined by what we own, by what we are called.
016. p95: It is perhaps only the nicely adjusted who can afford to dismiss their antecedents. Those passionately interested in their roots are usually either the historically oppressed or the oppressors, both needing to prove a point.
017. p107: Here, she had cruised briefly in that stratosphere which is beyond normal emotion, beyond contentment or exhilaration, that condition which drenched all perception, at the time but is only recognizable in retrospect.
018. 109: He talked and she had stopped being irritated at the invasion of her rock because his talk was intriguing.
019. p112: People are wary of lovers, for good reason. They recognized an abnormal state of mind… They see a temporary madness. They see those who care for nothing but themselves.
020. 114: She both did not count and had to be accounted for differently.

S The Stranger by Camus
-01- As always, whenever I want to get rid of someone I’m not really listening to, I make it appear as if I agreed.
-02- He didn’t understand me and he was sort of holding it against me. I felt the urge to reassure him I was like everybody else, just like everybody. But really there wasn’t much point, and I gave up the idea out of laziness.
-03- But everybody knows life isn’t worth living. Deep down I knew perfectly well that it doesn’t much matter whether you die at thirty or seventy, since in either case other men and women will naturally go on living—and for thousands of years.
-04- Since we’re all going to die, it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.
-05- Anyway, after that, remembering Marie meant nothing to me. I wasn’t interested in her dead. That seemed prefectly normal to me, since I understood very well that people would forget me when I was dead.
-06- I may not have been sure about what really did interest me, but I was absolutely sure about what didn’t. And it just so happened that what he was talking about didn’t interest me.
-07- He looked away and without moving asked me if I wasn’t talking that way out of despair. I explained to him that I wasn’t desperate I was just afraid, which was only natural. ‘Then God can help you,’ he said. ‘Every man I have known in your position has turned to Him.’ I acknowledged that that was their right. It also meant that they must have had time for it. As for me, I didn’t want anybody’s help, and I just didn’t have the time to interest myself in what didn’t interest me. S
-08- ‘Have you no hope at all? And do you really live with the thought that when you die, you die, and nothing remains?’ ‘Yes,’ I said.
-09- He then asked if a ‘change of life,’ as he called it, didn’t appeal to me, and I answered that one never changed his way of life was as good as another; and my present one suited me quite well.
-10- I could see that I got on his nerves; he couldn’t make me out, and, naturally enough, this irritated him.
-11- ‘Well, I rarely have anything much to say. So, naturally I keep my mouth shut.
-12- I noticed that he laid stress on my ‘intelligence.’ It puzzled me rather why what would count as a good point in an ordinary person should be used against an accused man as an overwhelming proof of his guilt.
-13- [The Priest] seemed so cocksure, you see. And yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair.
-14- From the dark horizon of my future a sort of slow, persistent breeze had been blowing toward me, all my life long, from the years that were to come. And on its way that breeze had leveled out all the ideas that people had tried to foist on me in the equally unreal years I was then living through. What difference would they make to me, the deaths of others, or a mother’s love, or his God; or the way a man decided to live, the fate he thinks he chooses, since one and the same fate was bound to ‘choose’ not only me but thousands of millions of privileged class. All alike would be condemned to die one day; his turn, too, would come like the others’.
-15- It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realise I’d been happy, and that I was happy still.
-16- It gave on a queer, dreamlike impression, that blue-white glare overhead and all this blackness round one: the sleek black of the hearse, the dull black of the men’s clothes, and the silvery-black gashes in the road.
-17- …the glare of the morning sun hit me in the eyes like a clenched fist
-18- It was like a furnace outside, with the sunlight splintering into flakes of fire on the sand and sea.
-19- For two hours the sun seemed to have made no progress; becalmed in a sea of molten steel.
-20- I’ve often thought that had I been compelled to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but gaze up at the patch of sky just overhead, I’d have got used to it by degrees.
-21- …I have never been able really to regret anything in all my life. I’ve always been far too much absorbed in the present moment, or the immediate future, to think back.
-22- “But,” I reminded myself, “it’s common knowledge that life isn’t worth living, anyhow.” And, on a wide view, I could see that it makes little difference whether one dies at the age of thirty or threescore and ten—since, in either case, other men and women will continue living, the world will go on as before.
-23- Once you’re up against it, the precise manner of your death has obviously small importance.
-24- Supposing she were dead, her memory would mean nothing; I couldn’t feel an interest in a dead girl. This seemed to me quite normal; just as I realized people would soon forget me once I was dead. I couldn’t even say that this was hard to stomach; really, there’s no idea to which one doesn’t get acclimatized in time.
-25- But, though I mightn’t be so sure about what interested me, I was absolutely sure about what didn’t interest me. And the question he had raised [about a belief in god] didn’t interest me at all.

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
-01-Bruno seemed incapable of surprise, only a whetting of interest.
-02- The afternoon he had found them in the apartment, like no other afternoon, with its own colour, taste, and sound, its own world, like a horrible little work of art.
-03- Any kind of person can murder. Purely circumstances and not a thing to do with temperament! People get so far—and it take just the least little thing to push them over the brink.
-04- [Regarding number of murders reported in newspapers] One twelfth! One twelfth! Just imagine! Who do you think the other eleven twelfths are? A lot of little people that don’t matter. All the people the cops know they’ll never catch.
-05- The sun poured down moltenly, not yellow but colorless, like something grown white with its own heat.

S Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
001. 7: At the last minute, however, it seemed that Providence had wavered, or decided that a shock of red hair would not be appropriate, neither to Madame Pericand’s irreproachable morals nor to her social status, so she had been given mousy brown hair.
002. 18: He hated the war; it threatened much more than his lifestyle or peace of mind. it continually destroyed the world of the imagination, the only world where he felt happy. It was like a shrill, brutal trumpet shattering the fragile crystal walls he’d taken such pains to build in order to shut out the rest of the world.
003. 18: He didn’t want to see anything new. He dismissed reality with the bored, startled gesture of a sleeping man awakened abruptly in the middle of a dream.
004. 54-5: In spite of the exhaustion, the hunger, the fear, Maurice Michaud was not really unhappy. He had a unique way of thinking: he didn’t consider himself that important; in his own eyes, he was not that rare and irreplaceable creature most people imagine when they think about themselves. He felt pity towards his fellow sufferers, but his pity was lucid and detached.
005. 55: “There’s never been anything as horrible as this!” a big woman next to him groaned.
“On the contrary, Madame, on the contrary,” he replied quietly.
006. 139: Phillipe had already noticed that he would only get a response from them after a few moments’ silence, as if they were making up a story, a lie, or as if they didn’t exactly understand what they were meant to do… Always the same feeling of dealing with people who were… not quite human…
007. 181-2: He thought, on a more serious note, that this was the secret of his happiness amid so much upheaval. He loved nothing, at least nothing that time could distort, that death could carry away; he’d been right not to have married, not to have had children… My god, everyone else had been taken in. He’d been the clever one.
008. 241: She paused and nodded curtly to the teacher who had just come in: she was a woman who did not attend Mass and who had buried her husband in a civil ceremony; according to her pupils she hadn’t even been baptised, which seemed not so much scandalous as unbelievable, like saying someone had been born with the tail of a fish. As this person’s conduct was irreproachable, the Viscountess hated her all the more: ‘because,’ she explained to the Viscount, ‘if he drank or had lovers, you could understand her lack of religion, but just imagine, Amaury, the confusion that can be caused in people’s minds when they see virtue practised by people who are not religious.’
009. 302: People judge one another according to their own feelings. It is only the miser who sees others enticed by money, the lustful who see others obsessed by desire.
010. 305: Though she lied and deceived herself, the lies were her own creation and she cherished them. For very brief moments she was happy. Her happiness was not hampered by the restrictions of reality.
011. 387: Salvation, in general is when the time allocated to us is longer than the time allocated to a crisis.
012. 388: …because of him, through him, he hates or thinks he hates, which is the same thing…



by V. L. Craven

-01- The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in high regard those who think alike rather than those who think differently.
-02- A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.
-03- Insanity in individuals is something rare—but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.
-04- Which is it, is man one of God’s blunders or is God one of man’s?
-05- Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species at that.
-06- I cannot believe in a God who wants to be praised all the time.
-07- In heaven all the interesting people are missing.
-08- Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.
-09- In the end one only experiences oneself.
-10- There is not sufficient love and goodness in the world to permit us to give some of it away to imaginary beings.
-11- Faith is not wanting to know what is true.
-12- Do not allow yourselves to be deceived: Great Minds are Skeptical.
-13- God is dead; but considering the state Man is in, there will, perhaps, be caves for ages yet, in which his shadow will be shown.
-14- So long as the priest, that professional negator, slanderer and poisoner of life, is regarded as a superior type of human being, there cannot be any answer to the question: What is Truth?
-15- Fanatics are picturesque, mankind would rather see gestures than listen to reason.
-16- Hope in reality is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of man.
-17- The Christian resolve to find the world evil and ugly, has made the world evil and ugly.
-18- Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial.
-19- Books for all the world are always foul-smelling books; the smell of small people clings to them.
-20- He shall be greatest who can be the loneliness, the most hidden, the most deviating, the human beyond good and evil.
-21- …we whose task is wakefulness itself.
-22- [Preface to Antichrist] One must be skilled at living on mountains—seeing the watched ephemeral babble of politics and national self-seeking beneath oneself.
-23- Be careful, lest in casting out your demon you exorcise the best thing in you.

Beyond Good and Evil
-001- We whose task is wakefulness itself
-002- Preface to Antichrist: One must be skilled at living on mountains—seeing the wretched ephemeral babble of politics and national self-seeking beneath oneself.
-003- …the things of the highest value must have another, peculiar origin—the cannot be derived from this transitory, destructive, deceptive, paltry world, from this turmoil of delusion and lust.
-004- p205 “According to nature” you want to _live_? O you noble Stoics, what deceptive words these are!
-005- …as soon as any philosophy begins to believe in itself. It always creates the world in its own image.
-006- Physiologists should think before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength–life itself is _will to power_, self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent _results_.


Optimism is Deadly

by V. L. Craven

Optimists have always struck me as the most miserable people in the world. They expect things to always go quite well, and then, when they nearly inevitably don’t, are disappointed. Whereas, realists recognise that things can go well or not-so-well and either way is neither good nor bad–it simply is.

Anecdotes do not make science, but I’ve seen this sort of thing (on a much smaller scale):

Then comes the paradox: While Stockdale had remarkable faith in the unknowable, he noted that it was always the most optimistic of his prisonmates who failed to make it out of there alive. “They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

What the optimists failed to do was confront the reality of their situation. They preferred the ostrich approach, sticking their heads in the sand and hoping for the difficulties to go away. That self-delusion might have made it easier on them in the short-term, but when they were eventually forced to face reality, it had become too much and they couldn’t handle it.

That’s about Admiral James Stockdale and The Stockdale Paradox .

In other words, just because we’re all going to hell doesn’t mean we can’t have a good time. (Or,try to mitigate the misery for yourself and others.)

via Lifehacker


The Full Spectrum

by V. L. Craven

The Full Spectrum

The Harry Potter books didn’t make me a Satanist. I’ve always viewed the world differently than my peers. Not better or worse, just different. There is some use in viewing the world as others do, but it’s also nice not to. Always a bit darker than others. Those things (Chas Addams,Tim Burton, E.A. Poe, etc) didn’t make me what I am, they appealed to me because I already was who I was. Not any more than a veterinarian becomes an animal lover because he’s a vet. He’s a vet because he loves animals.

The claims of Christian nutjobs that the HP phenomenon introduces vulnerable children to the dark side did arouse my curiosity about what ‘real’ Satanists believe. So I looked into it and discovered that, actually, I’d been a Satanist my entire life. Real Satanists would never harm a child or animal. They believe in the attempt at perfection of humanity–in being responsible for one’s own decisions. It has a great deal in common with Existentialism, a philosophy that optimists (the most frequently disappointed people in history) find depressing.

Satanists are quite straightforward people. We accept the darker side of human nature as being just that–natural to humans, we also appreciate the lighter side of humans–the ability to help one another. You cannot have one without the other. Ignoring either side deprives the observer of true appreciating the full capacity of the human spirit.

Those who fear the darker side of humanity fear the darkness within themselves. Rather than acknowledging it and choosing to be better than their baser urges simply because they are able to do so, they say they are doing so because a supernatural being says they should. Because a supernatural being threatens them with eternal punishment if they don’t strive for perfection.

Which is more desirable, choosing to be the person you want to be of your own volition, under your own personal belief in the human capacity for goodness, with the acknowledgement of the bad alongside the good, or being threatened into compliance?

Some people don’t see it as a threat, but as love. I always wonder about those peoples’ relationships with their parents. ‘I wouldn’t punish you so severely if I didn’t love you. If I didn’t know you were capable of being better than you are. Without me you’re nothing–I gave you the rules to live by, without which you’d have no more sense than an animal.’

Yes, humans are animals, but animals that have evolved by using common sense. The ones most likely to survive are the ones most willing to help their fellow animals, and, thereby, be helped by them in return. This is an amazing thing–the evolution of manners. Everything being created within one second–people being fully-formed instantaneously–is simplistic. Surely, a complex being would create complex creatures. But many seem to believe that a simplistic being, who sets black and white rules, created simplistic beings, that are purely good or purely evil.


The Stranger Part 2

by V. L. Craven

The Stranger Part 2

-9- I’ve often thought that had I been compelled to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but gaze up at the patch of sky just overhead, I’d have got used to it by degrees.

-10- I noticed that he laid stress on my “intelligence.” It puzzled me rather why what would count as a good point in an ordinary person should be used against an accused man as an overwhelming proof of his guilt.

-11- …I have never been able really to regret anything in all my life. I’ve always been far too much absorbed in the present moment, or the immediate future, to think back.

-12- “But,” I reminded myself, “it’s common knowledge that life isn’t worth living, anyhow.” And, on a wide view, I could see that it makes little difference whether one dies at the age of thirty or threescore and ten—since, in either case, other men and women will continue living, the world will go on as before.

-13- Once you’re up against it, the precise manner of your death has obviously small importance.

-14 Supposing she were dead, her memory would mean nothing; I couldn’t feel an interest in a dead girl. This seemed to me quite normal; just as I realized people would soon forget me once I was dead. I couldn’t even say that this was hard to stomach; really, there’s no idea to which one doesn’t get acclimatized in time.

-15-But, though I mightn’t be so sure about what interested me, I was absolutely sure about what didn’t interest me. And the question he had raised [about a belief in god] didn’t interest me at all.

-16- [The Priest] seemed so cocksure, you see. And yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair.


L’tranger Part One

by V. L. Craven

Ltranger Part One


The novel I’m working on is heavy on the existentialism so I’m reading a lot of existentialist fiction. It’s the sort of thing my characters would read, as well.

First up was:

L’tranger by Albert Camus

-1- It gave on a queer, dreamlike impression, that blue-white glare overhead and all this blackness round one: the sleek black of the hearse, the dull black of the men’s clothes, and the silvery-black gashes in the road.

This is just a beautiful piece of description.

-2-He then asked if a “change of life,” as he called it, didn’t appeal to me, and I answered that one never changed his way of life; one life was as good as another, and my present one suited me quite well.

Such an existentialist point of view, and one with which I completely agree.

The bulk of the novel takes place over a few days at a beach and Camus really captures the sunlight and heat. Atmosphere is one of the areas in which I need the most work so I’m always on the lookout for people who capture it well.

-3- …the glare of the morning sun hit me in the eyes like a clenched fist
-4- It was like a furnace outside, with the sunlight splintering into flakes of fire on the sand and sea.
-5- For two hours the sun seemed to have made no progress; becalmed in a sea of molten steel.

And a few with which I agree:

-6- I could see that I got on his nerves; he couldn’t make me out, and, naturally enough, this irritated him.
-7- “Well, I rarely have anything much to say. So, naturally I keep my mouth shut.”
-8-As I usually do when I want to get rid of someone whose conversation bores me, I pretended to agree.

Number 7 up there reminds me of my favourite lyric of David Byrne’s:

You start a conversation; you can’t even finish it. You’re talking a lot but you’re not saying anything. When I have nothing to say my lips are sealed. Say something once, why say it again? –”Psychokiller”


Kafka: “Wedding Preparations in the Country”

by V. L. Craven

This one is about the difference between how others see us and how we actually are… I think. It’s difficult to know, as several pages of the manuscript were missing. On the outside, it’s about a man who lives in the city making the arduous journey to the countryside where he’s to make preparations for his wedding. He’s full of doubt and anxiety about the entire endeavour, though we find out in the end that people see him in quite a different light.

At first, I thought it was unfair that Kafka led us on such a roundabout journey, which became as difficult for the reader as it was for the protagonist, when in the end—the very last paragraph, in fact—we finally get the point of the story.

Perhaps on another level it’s about reality versus perception, as the travelling that need be done in order to get to the countryside isn’t really all that strenuous, it’s only made so by our man out of fear and dislike of the countryside.

-7- The lady…now looked at him. She did so indifferently, and she was perhaps, in any case, only looking at the falling rain in front of him or at the small nameplates of firms that were fixed to the door over his head. Raban thought she looked amazed. “Well,” he thought, “if I could tell her the whole story, she would ceased to be astonished. One works so feverishly at the office that afterwards one is too tired even to enjoy one’s holidays properly. But even all that work does not give one a claim to be treated lovingly by everyone; on the contrary, one is alone, a total stranger and only an object of curiosity. And so long as you say ‘one’ instead of ‘I’, there’s nothing in it and one can easily tell the story; but as soon as you admit to yourself that it is you yourself, you feel as though transfixed and horrified.”

-8- Then it seemed to Raban that he would get through the long bad time of the next fortnight, too. For it was only a fortnight, that was to say, a limited period, and even if the annoyances grew ever greater, still, the time during which one had to endure them would be growing shorter and shorter. Thus, undoubtedly, courage would increase. “All the people who try to torment me, and who have now occupied the entire space around me, will quite gradually be thrust back by the beneficent passage of these days, without my having to help them even in the very least. And, as it will come about quite naturally, I can be weak and quiet and let everything happen to me, and yet everything must turn out well, through the sheer fact of the passing of the days. And besides, can’t I do it the way I always used to as a child in matters that were dangerous? I don’t even need to go to the country myself, it isn’t necessary. I’ll send my clothed body. If it staggers out of the door of my room, the staggering will indicate not fear but nothingness. Nor is it a sign of excitement if it stumbles on the stairs, if it travels into the country, sobbing as it goes, and there eats its supper in tears.”

-9- “…I shall make them angry if I try to pacify them. Oh, if I could only make them thoroughly angry in the attempt to pacify them.”

-10- There was the omnibus; he quickly climbed into the empty compartment, sat down by the windowpane behind the driver’s box, and hunched his back into the corner, for he had done all that was necessary. For if the driver is asleep, he will wake up toward morning; if he is dead, then a new driver will come, or the innkeeper, and should that not happen either, then passengers will come by early morning train, people in a hurry, making a noise. In any case one can be quiet, one may even draw the curtains over the windows and wait for the jerk with which the vehicle must start.

-11- …it was really wasting one’s time to stand about here in this hall, looking at the rain, but if one spent the time, besides, in chatter, one was wasting it double.

-12- Now Raban had believed for some time that nothing other people said about his capabilities or opinions had been able to affect him, on the contrary, that he had positively abandoned the position where he had listened, all submissively, to everything that was said, so that people were now simply wasting their breath whether they happened to be against him or for him.

-13- …books are useful in every sense and quite especially in respects in which one would not expect it. For when one is about to embark on some enterprise, it is precisely the books whose contents have nothing at all in common with the enterprise that are the most useful. For the reader…will be stimulated by the book to all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise. Now, however, since the contents of the book are precisely something of utter indifferent, the reader is not at all impeded in those thoughts, and he passes through the midst of the book with the,. As once the Jews passed through the Red Sea…


Saturday Shorts: Kafka

by V. L. Craven

This week I’ve begun a collection of Kafka’s short stories. I’ve only read three thus far and I’m hooked, though I know I’m missing at least half of what he’s trying to say. I have an Oxford Very Short Introduction to Kafka, though, so hopefully that will shed some light on the situation.

The three I’ve read are:

“Before the Law”
This is a parable about what we wish for—what keeps us from getting what we believe we desire and the way those things are lies.

“An Imperial Message”
About a message from a dying Emperor that’s just for you but will never reach you because there are too many impediments between the messenger and yourself. Because you can never receive the message you will spend your time dreaming of what it might be.
I think this one is about grandiosity of thought—that to presume an all-powerful emperor would have a message just for you and would use his dying breath to convey it is ridiculously presumptuous.

“Description of a Struggle”

I’m almost at a complete loss on what this story is about beneath the words. On the surface, it’s three revolving shorter pieces about man’s struggle with other men, with nature and with his own mind. One part is about a man who meets another man at a party and then walks with him into the night. I believe the second man is but a fiction the narrator (the first man) invented. In another story he invents the landscape to suit his whims, which reminds me of my lucid dreams—there’s an extended section that’s particularly beautifully written, transcribed below. This story is reminiscent of Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading and The Defense (or Despair—Nabokov has two novels where the protagonist realises he has ultimate control over his reality).

-1- All day in the office, evenings at a party, at night in the streets, and nothing to excess. A way of life so natural that it borders on the excessive!

-2- From these words I imagined that my acquaintance suspected in me something which, although it wasn’t there, made me nevertheless rise in his estimation by his suspecting it. … Who knows, this man [ … ] might be capable of bestowing on me in the eyes of the world a value without my having to work for it.

-3- I had to restrain myself from putting my arm around his shoulders and kissing him on the eyes as a reward for having absolutely no use for me.

-4- I promptly stood up straight as though I had been pulled up by the hair.

-5- I walk on, unperturbed. But since, as a pedestrian, I dreaded the effort of climbing the mountainous road, I let it become gradually flatter, let it slope down into a valley in the distance. The stones vanished at my will and the wind disappeared.
…Because I love pinewoods I went through woods of this kind, and since I like gazing silently up at the stars, the stars appeared slowly in the sky, as is their wont. I say only a few fleecy which a wind, blowing just at their height, pulled through the air…
Opposite and at some distance from my road, probably separated from it by a river as well, I caused to rise an enormously high mountain whose plateau, overgrown with brushwood, bordered on the sky. I could see quite clearly the little ramifications of the highest branches and their movements. This sight, ordinary as it may be, made me so happy that I, as a small bird on a twig of those distant scrubby bushes, forgot the let the moon come up.

-6- Feeling that this required an answer, I put my hand in the hip pocket of my trousers as though I were looking for something. Actually, I wasn’t looking for anything, I just wished to change my appearance in order to show interest in the conversation.

Kafka seems interested in the futility of life, I think, which would make sense as he’s thought of as an existentialist writer.

Thus far I’m finding the work both challenging and rewarding.


The Secret Sharer pt 2

by V. L. Craven

Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” is an excellent suspenseful short story. A captain of a ship, very new to the job and unsure of his place with the crew, takes onboard a man from a nearby ship who’s killed another man. The captain of that boat comes looking for the castaway in order to bring him to justice on land. The narrator and the murderer look very much alike (and at times I wondered if they were the same person), which is where the title comes from. The two men spend a lot of time together, whispering in the captain’s room.

The story is about man’s place amongst other men, but, more importantly, his place within himself. The castaway is a metaphor for the captain–he feels alone on the ship, as though he’s just been thrown aboard. He only feels safe to be himself in his room, particularly at night when he’s not expected to be out and about giving orders. And up until the last couple of sentences one doesn’t know if he’ll be caught and sent to shore (shown to be a weak captain) or if he’ll escape/prove himself.

Aside from the plot, the writing is beautiful. An example:

And in the same whisper, as if we two whenever we talked had to say things to each other which were not fit for the world to hear…

It was also full of Existentialist concepts/references:

His expression was concentrated, meditative, under the inspecting light of the lamp I held up to his face; such as a man thinking hard in solitude might wear.

And yet, haggard as he appeared, he looked always perfectly self-controlled, more than calm–almost invulnerable.

“He was one of those creatures that are just simmering all the time with a silly sort of wickedness. Miserable devils that have no business to live at all.”

The first two quotes are about being self-sufficient–a being separate from humanity. In a way, that’s also what the third quote is about–how there are people who are morally superior to others by dint of intelligence and disposition and the others wouldn’t be missed if they hopped it.

“The Secret Sharer” is available here from Project Gutenberg.


The Secret Sharer part 1

by V. L. Craven

Yesterday I began reading a collection of short stories collected from the British Isles and compiled in 1957 by Christopher Isherwood. I’m still luxuriating in The Anatomy of Melancholy , but it’s too heavy–in both senses–to read whilst on the recumbent bike.

The first story in the collection ( Great English Short Stories ) is “The Secret Sharer” by Joseph Conrad and has the most wonderful descriptions, like:

Here and there gleams of a few scattered pieces of silver marked the windings of the great river; and on the nearest of them, just within the bar, the tug steaming right into the land became lost to my sight, hull and funnel and masts, as though the impassive earth had swallowed her up without an effort, without a tremor.

The imagery there is so vivid and perceptive. It reminds me of the first time I read Woolf’s description of the sound of church bells chiming the hour as ‘rings of iron dissolving in the air’. Truly gifted authors have the ability to make one say, ‘Yes, that’s just what it’s like,’ about a turn of phrase not conceived of before.

Another quote that spoke to me was:

…I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly

This brings me back to the Derrida quote about how every man has an inner statue of the person he longs to be, something that rang very true to me. How often we fail to be the person we most want to be for reasons of the past defining the future, but in every moment one can choose to be the person one wants to be, the monument inside oneself. This is a part of being an Existentialist, so it’s no surprise Conrad expressed this idea, as he is an Existentialist.


CBT Teaches Objectivity

by V. L. Craven

Last night, as I was transcribing notes from Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon I came across this:

[Cognitive Behavioural Therapy] CBT is a form of psychodynamic therapy–base on emotional and mental responses to external events, in the present and in childhood–that is tightly focused on objectives. … [The creator] Beck proposes that one’s thoughts about oneself are frequently destructive, and that by forcing the mind to think in certain ways one can actually change one’s reality–it’s a program that one of his collaborators has called “learned optimism.” He believes depression is the consequence of false logic, and that by correcting negative reasoning one may achieve better mental health. CBT teaches objectivity.

This is very much in line with Stoicism and Existentialism in that it relies not on external factors to change one’s reality, but relies on one’s own mind to alter (and therefore change) one’s reality.

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