Scott McLemee
Commonplace Book
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If you don’t want the pleasure of being wrong sometimes you might as well go to med school.
 
 
 
At least bad popular writing stands up and announces itself, instead of trying to ape the style of its betters, like one of those damn McDonald's Premium sandwiches, which incidentally will still make you sick.
 
                                              -- The Occasional Review
 
 
A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensible.
 
  --  Walter Benjamin, One Way Street (1928)

 

He hardly spoke at all except to mutter "Crap" or "What crap" as he processed newsmatter, affecting a contempt for all events on earth and for the written accounts of those events.

-- Charles Portis, The Dog of the South (1979)

 
 
Though we would like to live without regrets, and sometimes proudly insist that we have none, this is not really possible, if only because we are mortal. When more time stretches behind than stretches before one, some assessments, however reluctantly and incompletely, begin to be made. Between what one wishes to become and what one has become there is a momentous gap, which will now never be closed. And this gap seems to operate as one's final margin, one's last opportunity, for creation. And between the self as it is and the self as one sees it, there is also a distance even harder to gauge. Some of us are compelled, around the middle of our lives, to make a study of this baffling geography, less in the hope of conquering these distances than in the determination that the distance shall not become any greater.
 
-- James Baldwin

 

Ambition is a poor excuse for not having sense enough to be lazy.

 --  Edgar Bergen, via Charlie McCarthy (via Cup of Chicha)

 

But indeed Conviction, were it never so excellent, is worthless till it convert itself into Conduct. Nay properly conviction is not possible till then; inasmuch as all Speculation is by nature endless, formless, a vortex amid vortices: only by a felt indubitable certainty of Experience does it find any centre to revolve round, and so fashion itself into a system. Most true it is, as a wise man teaches us, that "Doubt of any sort cannot be removed except by Action." On which ground, too, let him who gropes painfully in darkness or uncertain light, and prays vehemently that the dawn may ripen into day, lay this other precept well to heart, which to me was of invaluable service: "DO THE DUTY WHICH LIES NEAREST THEE," which thou knowest to be a duty! Thy second duty will already have become clearer. . . .The Situation that has not its Duty, its Ideal, was never yet occupied by man. Yes here, in this poor, miserable, hampered, despicable Actual, wherein thou even know standest, here or nowhere is thy Ideal: work it out therefrom; and working, believe, live, be free. Fool! The Ideal is in thyself, the stuff thou art to shape that same Ideal out of: what matters whether such stuff be of this sort or that, so the Form thou give it be heroic, be poetic? O thou that pinest in the imprisonment of the Actual, and criest bitterly to the gods for a kingdom wherein to rule and create, know this of a truth: the thing thou seekest is already with thee, "here or nowhere," couldst thou only see! . . . . Be no longer a Chaos, but a World, or even Worldkin. Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it, in God's name! 'Tis the utmost thou hast in thee: out with it, then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.

                                         -- Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus

 

In the reading room of the New York Public Library, that mausoleum, designed by some schoolmaster with memories of hard oak, dust and gloom, there are men who sit day after day, bulwarked by stacks of books, scribbling, scribbling in the little pools of light from the green-shaded lamps on the long oak tables, and you look at them and wonder what will-o'-the-wisps they are pursuing day after day, year after year. One of them may be writing a history of dentistry in America, another studying explosives in order to blow up the world, a third gathering evidence that Shakespeare wrote the Bible. Their faces are pale and grim. The only cheerful people in that place are those who do not read the books, but only handle them as they come from the dumbwaiter, and set them on the counter like mouldy slabs of beef. Those who sit at the long tables day after day are dedicated men; some of them are brave men. There is death in old books from the stacks of a great library; the dust that impregnates their pages is death and darkness; the dust says, "These are books that no one has opened for twenty years, fifty years, eighty years; and when you have written your book, it too will gather dust." White book dust, bone dust: garden dirt and axle grease are clean in comparison; they are living and unctuous; rubbed into the skin, they do good. The dust of books causes blains and hangnails; ingested, it provokes dyspepsia, flatulence, and heartburn; in the lungs it is cancerous. Who would not choose, if he could, to sit chained to an oar in a Roman galley, in the sunlight and salt air, rather than in this sunless crypt where, in the years from 1905 to 1920, Charles Fort sat? Many people must have wondered why he was here behind his tall stack of books: but one does not ask. Perhaps there is another like him there today, silent and determined under the green-shaded lamp.

Damon Knight, Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained (Victor Gollancz, 1971)

 
No one involved in a "relationship" ever had a good time. One may be courting, seducing, experimenting sexually, dating, married, keeping company, and so on. But anything called "a relationship" must eventually result in sorrow, as the participants are unwilling to examine and name its nature.
 
                                                         -- David Mamet

 

 

Not to censor is an act of moral will, a commitment. At some point early in his career a young writer must come to it, like a kind of the Hippocratic oath. If he can think something, he will say it; if it says itself, he will not strike it; if he can write it, he will publish it. The writing does not belong to 'himself.' The refusal of censorship and self-censorship is, of course, essential for the use of writing against lying and oppressive regimes; but it also makes a writer a thorn in the side of his own political cause: He gets nice about the slogans; he can’t say the half-truth; he states the case of the opposition better than is convenient; and so forth….The spontaneity, the free origination, of writing is one aspect of a writer’s disinterestedness; he does not will it, but he is present with it.

 

  -- Paul Goodman, Speaking and Language: Defense of Poetry (1971)

 

 
Regarding a certain fetishized conception of theory, E.P. Thompson wrote (a quarter century ago) that it "has now lodged itself in a a particular social couche, the bourgeois lumpen-intelligentsia: aspirant intellectuals, whose amateurish intellectual preparation disarms them before manifest absurdities and elementary philosophical blunders, and whose innocence in intellectual practice leaves them paralyzed in the first web of scholastic argument which they encounter; and bourgeois, because while many of them would like to be 'revolutionaries,' they themselves are the products of a particular 'conjuncture' which has broken the circuits between intellectuality and practical experience (both in real political movements and in the actual segregation imposed by contemporary institutional structures), and hence they are able to perform imaginary revolutionary psycho-dramas (in which each outbids the other in adopting ferocious verbal postures) while in fact falling back upon a very old tradition of bourgeois elitism...."
          -- The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (Merlin, 1978).
 
 
The truth is that most of my life is spent in tasks so utterly mundane and banal that it would require new developments in narrative theory simply to try to relate them.
          --  Michael Bérubé

 

The writer's defense is his power of self-objectivity, his interest in otherness, and his faith in the process itself, which enables him to write on into the teeth of his doubts and then to improve it. In the scars of his struggle between the odd, sensitive side of the self that wants to write and the practical, socialized one that wants results, [the writer] is likely to find his true sense of vocation. Moreover, writing itself, if it is not misunderstood and abused, becomes a way of empowering the writing self. It converts diffuse anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer's main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer's main means of relating to otherness. Similarly, his wounded innocence turns into irony, his silliness into wit, his guilt into judgment, his oddness into originality, his perverseness into his stinger. Because all this takes time, indeed most of a lifetime, to compete itself, [the writer] has to learn that his main task is to persist.

          -- Theodore Solotaroff, "Writing into the Cold"

 

No occupation designed for dim younger sons was easier to enter than book reviewing; or, once entered, easier to rise in. You go immediately to the top, it is the least you can ask.... So whatever politics a microscope may turn up in this game can have little to do with upward mobility. Since there is absolutely no way of not reaching the top -- and since the top proves to be so close to the bottom -- the satisfaction must be sought crabwise, foraging side to side, magazine to magazine; passing on the way other reviewers of similar, sometimes almost interchangable sensibility, who are lurching counterclockwise.

          -- Wilfred Sheed, "The Politics of Reviewing"