Friday, November 9, 2012


There are very few moments in a man's existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat. A vast deal of coolness, and a peculiar degree of judgment, are requisite in catching a hat. A man must not be precipitate, or he runs over it; he must not rush into the opposite extreme, or he loses it altogether. The best way is to keep gently up with the object of pursuit, to be wary and cautious, to watch your opportunity well, get gradually before it, then make a rapid dive, seize it by the crown, and stick it firmly on your head; smiling pleasantly all the time, as if you thought it as good a joke as anybody else.

There was a fine gentle wind, and Mr. Pickwick's hat rolled sportively before it. The wind puffed, and Mr. Pickwick puffed, and the hat rolled over and over as merrily as a lively porpoise in a strong tide: and on it might have rolled, far beyond Mr. Pickwick's reach, had not its course been providentially stopped, just as that gentleman was on the point of resigning it to its fate.

For instance, there is a current impression that it is unpleasant to have to run after one's hat. Why should it be unpleasant to the well-ordered and pious mind? Not merely because it is running, and running exhausts one. The same people run much faster in games and sports. The same people run much more eagerly after an uninteresting little leather ball than they will after a nice silk hat. There is an idea that it is humiliating to run after one's hat; and when people say it is humiliating they mean that it is comic. It certainly is comic; but man is a very comic creature, and most of the things he does are comic - eating, for instance. And the most comic things of all are exactly the things that are most worth doing - such as making love. A man running after a hat is not half so ridiculous as a man running after a wife. 

Now a man could, if he felt rightly in the matter, run after his hat with the manliest ardour and the most sacred joy. He might regard himself as a jolly huntsman pursuing a wild animal, for certainly no animal could be wilder. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012


Clive James:

Looking back through these pages, I catch myself in a posture about the “Ode on Melancholy.” Like any other work of literature, it is my favorite only when I am reading it. One of the characteristics of a work of art is to drive all the other works of art temporarily out of your head. If comparisons come flooding in, it means that the work’s air of authority is a sham. No such fears with the “Ode on Melancholy,” which, at the time I first went mad about it, I could recite from memory—well, almost. In the matter of memorization, length sets severe limits. Hence the absurdity in the final scene of the movie Truffaut made out of Ray Bradbury’s supposedly prophetic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451. People walk around in the forest reciting Anna Karenina, etc. A nice idea, but wishful thinking, even when applied to poems. In the old Soviet Union, where, for obvious reasons, there was a great emphasis on memorizing contemporary poems, the manuscript still counted. People remembered things only until they could get them safely written down.

Friday, June 22, 2012


If some fatal progress of applied science ever enables us in fact to reach the Moon, that real journey will not at all satisfy the impulse which we now seek to gratify by writing such stories. The real Moon, if you could reach it and survive, would in a deep and deadly sense be just like anywhere else. You would find cold, hunger, hardship and danger; and after the first few hours they would be simply cold, hunger hardship and danger as you might have met on earth. And death would be simply death among those bleached craters as it is simply death in a nursing home at Sheffield. No man would find an abiding strangeness on the Moon unless he were the sort of man who could find it in his own back garden. -C.S. Lewis

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Medieval towns were not organized on a grid or with avenues radiating symmetrically from a center. They were organized theologically, divided up according to the Seven Virtues, or the Twelve Apostles, or the Ten Commandments. Their labyrinthine streets were designed to teach spiritual lessons.
I get a little thrill when I learn tidbits like that, but where does the thrill come from? There is some vertigo in it: the dizzying sense that my world is more precarious than it seems, like standing on a fragile bridge with nothing, but nothing, stretching far, far below.
It's also the thrill of encountering a world other than mine. History is a bore to many, but history well told is as exciting as an absorbing fiction. It's like handling the gizmos of science fiction or meeting the beasts of fantasy. It's a world of delights all the more delicious because it is my world, younger.
And it's the thrill of the future, because if the world was once very different, it will be yet again.

Leithart, Peter. “Delightful History.” Touchstone Mag. March/April 2012:
        6. Print.

Friday, March 9, 2012


But sympathy in novels need not be simply a matter of the reader’s direct identification with a fictional character. It can also be driven by, say, my admiration of a character who is long on virtues I am short on (the moral courage of Atticus Finch, the limpid goodness of Alyosha Karamazov), or, most interestingly, by my wish to be a character who is unlike me in ways I don’t admire or even like. One of the great perplexities of fiction-and the quality that makes the novel the quintessentially liberal art form-is that we experience sympathy so readily for characters we wouldn’t like in real life. Becky Sharp may be a soulless social climber, Tom Ripley may be a sociopath, the Jackal may want to assassinate the French President, Mickey Sabbath may be a disgustingly self-involved old goat, and Raskolnikov may want to get away with murder, but I find myself rooting for each of them. This is sometimes, no doubt, a function of the lure of the forbidden, the guilty pleasure of imagining what it would be like to be unburdened by scruples. In every case, though, the alchemical agent by which fiction transmutes my secret envy or my ordinary dislike of “bad” people into sympathy is desire. Apparently, all a novelist has to do is give a character a powerful desire (to rise socially, to get away with murder) and I, as a reader, become helpless not to make that desire my own.
Franzen, Jonathan. “A Rooting Interest.” The New Yorker. 13 Feb. 2012:
        60-65. Print.