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John Locke advised that his readers keep a commonplace book, a document where quotes, proverbs, and ideas would be gathered in an unrestricted way. This is my commonplace book. It is full of quotes and ideas that I have found compelling at one point in my life.
The business man who assumes that this life is everything, and the mystic who asserts it is nothing, fail, on this side and that, to hit the truth. "Yes, I see, dear: it's about halfway between," Aunt Juley had hazarded in the earlier years. No; truth, being alive, was not halfway between anything. It was only to be found by continuous excursions into either realm, and though proportion is the final secret, to espouse it at the outset is to ensure sterility.
-Forster, from Howard's End
I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.
-Stephen Jay Gould
I do not admire the excess of a virtue like valor, unless I see at the same time an excess of the opposite virtue, as with Epaminondas, who posessed extreme valor and extreme kindness. For otherwise it is not rising but falling.
A page, turning, is a wing lifted with no twin, and therefore no flight. And yet we are moved.
There is no cure for the condition of belonging to the world. But, by taking care, we can cure ourselves of believing that we do not belong to it, that the essential question lies elsewhere, that what happens to the world does not concern us.
-Bruno Latour, from Facing Gaia
You could live a hundred years, it's happened.
I am speaking from the fortunate platform
of many years,
none of which, I think, I ever wasted.
Do you need a prod?
Do you need a little darkness to get you going?
Let me be as urgent as a knife, then,
and remind you of Keats,
so single of purpose and thinking, for a while,
he had a lifetime.
Mary Oliver, from "The Fourth Sign of the Zodiac"
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
-Mary Oliver, "The Summer Day"
Caesar was too old, it seems to me, to amuse himself by going off to conquer the world. Such entertainment was good for Augustus or Alexander. They were young men and difficult to restrain. But Caesar should have been more mature.
All our political disasters grow as logically out of our attempts in the past to do without justice, as the sinking of some part of your house comes of defect in the foundation. One thing is plain; a certain personal virtue is essential to freedom; and it begins to be doubtful whether our corruption in this country has not gone a little over the mark of safety, so that when canvassed we shall be found to be made up of a majority of reckless self-seekers.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
As each of us considers himself sufficiently capable of practicing justice, each of us naturally thinks that a system under which he yielded power would be a reasonably just one. This is the temptation Christ underwent at the hands of the devil. Men are continually succumbing to it.
The compassion felt for fragility is always associated with the love for real beauty, because we are keenly conscious of the fact that the existence of the really beautiful things ought to be assured forever, and they are not.
Only art penetrates the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can't receive.
Man is only a reed, the weakest thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The whole universe does not need to take up arms to crush him; a vapor, a drop of water, is enough to kill him. But if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than what killed him, because he knows he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him. The universe knows nothing of this. Our dignity consists, then, in thought. It is from this we must raise ourselves, and not from space and duration, which we could not fill. Let us labor, then, to think well. This is the principle of morality.
In the beginning there were days set aside for various tasks.
On the day He was to create justice
God got involved in making a dragonfly
and lost track of time.
It was about two inches long
with turquoise dots all down its back like Lauren Bacall.
God watched it bend its tiny wire elbows
as it set about cleaning the transparent case of its head.
The eye globes mounted on the case
rotated this way and that
as it polished every angle.
Inside the case
which was glassy black like the windows of a downtown bank
God could see the machinery humming
and He watched the hum
travel all the way down turquoise dots to the end of the tail
and breathe off as light.
Its black wings vibrated in and out.
-"God's Justice" by Anne Carson
We know, indeed, what history can do when it gains a certain ascendancy, we know it only too well: it can cut off the strongest instincts of youth, its fire, defiance, unselfishness and love, at the roots, damp down the heat of its sense of justice, suppress or regress its desire to mature slowly with the counter-desire to be ready, useful, fruitful as quickly as possible, cast morbid doubt on its honesty and boldness of feeling; indeed, it can even deprive youth of its fairest privilege, of its power to implant in itself the belief in a great idea and then let it grow to an even greater one.
-Nietzche, from "The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life"
Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so well established, that, unless we loved the truth, we could not know it.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
The aim of literature ... is the creation of a strange object covered with fur which breaks your heart.
-Barthelme, from "Florence Green Is 81"
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Mary Oliver, "Wild Geese"
If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?
-Marilynne Robinson, from Gilead
Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
Writing: a way of leaving no space for death, of pushing back forgetfulness, of never letting oneself be surprised by the abyss. Of never becoming resigned, consoled: never turning over in bed to face the wall and drift asleep as if nothing had happened, as if nothing could happen.
-Cixous, from Coming to Writing
There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading -- that is a good life.
Thus the sum of things is ever being reviewed, and mortals dependent one upon another. Some nations increase, others diminish, and in a short space the generations of living creatures are changed and like runners pass on the torch of life.
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
-Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass
Ideology hides itself in probability calculations.
-Adorno and Horkheimer, from Dialectic of Enlightenment
I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Maybe it is the nothingness that is real and our entire dream is nonexistent, but in that case we feel that these phrases of music, and these notions that exist in relation to our dream, must also be nothing. We will perish, but we have for hostages these divine captives who will follow us and share our fate. And death in their company is less bitter, less inglorious, and perhaps less probable.
-Marcel Proust, from Swann's Way
We are all of us more mystics than we believe or choose to believe – life is complicated enough as it is, after all. We have seen more than we let on, even to ourselves.
Through some moment of beauty or pain, some sudden turning of our lives, we catch glimmers at least of what the saints are blinded by; only then, unlike the saints, we tend to go on as though nothing has happened. To go on as though something has happened, even though we are not sure what it was or just where we are supposed to go with it, is to enter the dimension of life that religion is a word for.
[N]one of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to danice to, when we long to move the stars to pity.
-Flaubert, from Madame Bovary
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so, because it serenely disdains to destroy us.
-Rainer Maria Rilke