Our affection towards others creates a sort of vantage or purchase which nothing will supply. I can do that by another which I cannot do alone. I can say to you what I cannot say to myself. Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds.
Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Representative Men (1850)
Image: Petrona Viera, Friendship
(El Cuentito), found here
The racket was indescribable; trapped and burning smoke almost blanketed the fight in total darkness. No words can express horror at that pitch. There were no men left in that now infernal struggle. It was no longer a matter of giants versus colossi. It was more like something out of Milton and Dante than Homer. Fiends attacked, specters resisted.
It was the heroism of monsters.
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), tr. Julie Rose
Image, Edouard Manet, The Barricade, found here
In my year-long chapter-a-day reading of Hugo’s novel, today’s chapter “Inch by Inch” (from which this quotation is taken) concerns the fall of the barricade defended by several of the novel’s main characters in a doomed 1832 insurrection.
Did Hugo know that this chapter would correspond to the today’s date, November 11, the day of St. Martin, a soldier who put down his arms to follow Christ? He didn’t know, of course, that today would mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, which created so much pointless bloodshed. But the horror of violence was much on his mind — along with the nobility of some who attempted to use it in a good cause.
“Henrietta suddenly caught her breath. Always it seemed to her quite incredible that men could have made this place; people like herself and Hugh Anthony only bigger; how could they have done it? She looked about her. The massive pillars of the nave were so tall that they seemed to be lifting up the soaring arches they carried far out of sight, while below them the aisles stretched away unendingly into shadowed space. The sunshine came through the stained glass windows curiously charged, split up into reds and blues and greens robbed of its brightness and subdued to the colors of mystery. Everywhere was this sense of space and height and a reaching out to an end that was never found. There was no time here. Past and present and future were all one.”
Elizabeth Goudge, Sister of the Angels (1939)
Image: William Turner, Interior of Salisbury Cathedral, found here.
How is it possible that one person can use only words to make another person laugh? Without tickling them, without making a silly face, without doing something foolish, they just make those twenty-six letters fall in a certain order, and for no good reason, I can see your eyes narrow, your cheeks get pulled up, your lips separate, your teeth show, and before you know what’s hit you, those twenty-six letters have you doubled up laughing.
Now that’s magic.
Christopher Paul Curtis, The Madman of Piney Woods (2014)
Image: The Letter, Vittorio Reggianini, found here.
The kitten has a luxurious, Bohemian, unpuritanical nature. It eats six meals a day, plays furiously with a toy mouse and a piece of rope, and suddenly falls into a deep sleep whenever the fit takes it. It never feels the need to do anything to justify its existence; it does not want to be a Good Citizen; it has never heard of Service. It knows that it is beautiful and delightful, and it considers that a sufficient contribution to the general good. And in return for its beauty and charm it expects fish, meat, and vegetables, a comfortable bed, a chair by the grate fire, and endless petting. The people who yelp so persistently for social security should take a lesson from kittens; they have only to be beautiful and charming, and they will get it without asking.
Robertson Davies, The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks (1986)
Image: Girl with a Cat by Auguste Renoir (from Harriet Devine’s Blog)
Mythology is the discourse we need in extremity. We have to be prepared for a myth to change us forever.
Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth (2005)
Image: Edmund Dulac, from The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche
There was something unbearable in the things, in the people, in the buildings, in the streets that, only if you reinvented it all, as in a game, became acceptable. The essential, however, was to know how to play, and she and I, only she and I, knew how to do it.
Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (2012)
Image: Street scene by Neapolitan artist Mario Ferdelba
It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humor.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)
Image: “Merry Old Santa” by Thomas Nast (Public Domain Review)
He did not think of these books as something invented to beguile the idle
hour, but as living creatures, caught in the very behaviour of living,
— surprised behind their misleading severity of form and phrase. He was
eavesdropping upon the past, being let into the great world that had
plunged and glittered and sumptuously sinned long before little Western
towns were dreamed of.
Willa Cather, A Lost Lady (1923)
Image: Man Reading by John Singer Sargent
“But there’s nothing in this world that I’m not ready to see and learn, and no god that I’m not ready to approach in his own fashion. I told you that truth was the shadow of God. If I am to use it, I must know who He is. Do you understand me?”
“How could I? What god are you talking about?”
“I think there is only one. Oh, there are gods everywhere, in the hollow hills, in the wind and the sea, in the very grass we walk on and the air we breathe, and in the bloodstained shadows where men like Belasius wait for them. But I believe there must be one who is God Himself, like the great sea, and all the rest of us, small gods and men and all, like rivers, we all come to Him in the end.”
Merlin, to his servant Cadal in The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart