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Mechanics of an Ended Empire

And the secrets of the people in these low cottages, under the dark-gray shingle roofs, behind the small square windowpanes and the wooden doors, oozed through chinks and rafters into the miry streets and even into the large, eternally remote barracks yard. One man had been cuckolded, another had sold his daughter to the Russian captain; someone was vending rotten eggs, someone else was regularly living off contraband; one man was an ex-convict, another had just barely avoided prison; this one lent money to officers, and his neighbor pocketed one third of the profits. The officers, non-aristocrats mostly and from a German-speaking background, had been stationed in this garrison for years and years; it had become both their home and their fate. Cut off from their homeland customs, from their German mother tongue (which had become an officialese here), at the mercy of the unending bleakness of the swamps, they fell prey to gambling and to the sharp schnapps distilled in this area and sold under the label 180 Proof. From the harmless mediocrity in which military school and traditional drilling had trained them, they skittered into the corruption of this land, with the vast breath of the huge hostile czarist empire blowing across it.

—Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March

Compulsive Diarist

It was a failure of my imagination that made me keep leaving people. All I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, record, and, once recorded, safely forget. I knew I was getting somewhere when I began losing interest in the beginnings and the ends of things. Short tragic love stories that had once interested me no longer did. What interested me was the kind of love to which the person dedicates herself for so long, she no longer remembers quite how it began.


If I considered the act of procreation as essential to the world’s general ongoingness, I could almost accept it as an obligation of being alive. I believed that parturition would honor the force that, in the nineteenth century, joined my earliest ancestors I know by name, and the forces joining anonymous procreators for centuries and centuries before that, and so on back to the beginning, to the first sexually differentiated animals. And then, someday, maybe, someone will have needed me to produce one of their ancestors, and that fact of my parturition, that fact and my name, will be the last anyone remembers of me. All the rest of me will be gone, no longer anyone’s burden.

—Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness


The essay on the Bildungsroman is actually a fragment from one of Bakhtin’s several lost books. In this case, nonpublication cannot be blamed on insensitive censors. Its nonappearance resulted, rather, from effects that grew out of the Second World War, one of the three great historical moments Bakhtin lived through (the other two being the Bolshevik Revolution and the Stalinist purges). Sovetsky pisatel (Soviet Writer), the publishing house that was to bring out Bakhtin’s book The Novel of Education and Its Significance in the History of Realism, was blown up in the early months of the German invasion, with the loss of the manuscript on which he had worked for at least two years (1936-38). Bakhtin retained only certain preparatory materials and a prospectus of the book; due to the paper shortage, he had torn them up page by page during the war to make wrappers for his endless chain of cigarettes. He began smoking pages from the conclusion of the manuscript, so what we have is a small portion of its opening section, primarily about Goethe.

—Michael Holquist, introduction to Mikhail Bakhtin’s collection, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays

Those Secret Words We Hear in Darkness

And I owe my career, my artisan’s satisfaction and any morality I might lay claim to as a person to art, to writing, to—for example—a single scene in a drama that haunted me in my childhood and has ever since. In the drama a man who was not a torturer, but who was weak, stood in a torture chamber and was handed a pair of pliers—and there was the torture victim and there was the torturer and there were the pliers and there was the unspoken assurance that if the weak man did not torture he would be tortured and there was the pause. And that drama, by German screenwriter Lukas Heller who was born in Kiel in 1930—asked me and still asks me—and what would you do? How weak are you? How best can you control your weakness and your desire for self-preservation—how do you prevent your fall and keep yourself and others truly safe?

And the how is what art always tells us—amongst everything else that it shows us and tells us. And it makes me think of lines from Heine’s poem—Allnächtlich im Traume—which is large enough to be about more than one kind of love…

Du sagst mir heimlich ein leises Wort,
Und gibst mir den Strauß von Zypressen.
Ich wache auf, und der Strauß ist fort,
Und das Wort hab ich vergessen.

As writers and artists we keep hold of the cypress that reminds us we all die and that we should be merciful and we serve the dreams that come to us to be expressed. We make them articulate and let them join the larger dreams that others make for us, the dreams that form our culture. Our culture makes the reality we inhabit. As artists, as writers, we are paid to dream awake and that is very nice for us. As human beings, which is more important, we have a duty never to forget those secret words we hear in darkness and to guard each other from the worst of who we can be, the worst of worlds that we can make and to do better. And we can love that, we can love that loudly.

—A.L. Kennedy, acceptance speech for the Heine Prize 2016

To Whom It Definitely Concerns

I met Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz five or six years before the Second World War. I was then a student, and Witkiewicz sometimes dropped by as a guest to the seminars given by the Philosophy Department of Warsaw University. I knew his two novels and some of his plays that had been published in magazines or were circulating in manuscript copies. I saw many of his paintings; Witkacy (the name he created for himself from the first part of his last name and the last part of his middle name) was very popular as a painter. He was making portraits at a low price, and he often gave them away free of charge. Later on I met some of his personal friends, or rather his “ex-” friends; Witkacy called them his “ideological enemies.” He had the practice of keeping a numbered list of his acquaintances, and whenever he lowered the position of one of them, he would inform him about it with an “official” letter.

—Jan Kott, introduction to The Madman and the Nun and the Crazy Locomotive, by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz

Epistemology as a Wellspring (of Science)

At the heart of this new optimistic view of the possibility of knowledge lies the doctrine that truth is manifest. Truth may perhaps be veiled. But it may reveal itself. And if it does not reveal itself, it may be revealed by us. Removing the veil may not be easy. But once the naked truth stands revealed before our eyes, we have the power to see it, to distinguish it from falsehood, and to know that it is truth.

The birth of modern science and modern technology was inspired by this optimistic epistemology whose main spokesmen were Bacon and Descartes. They taught that there was no need for any man to appeal to authority in matters of truth because each man carried the sources of knowledge in himself; either in his power of sense-perception which he may use for the careful observation of nature, or in his power of intellectual intuition which he may use to distinguish truth from falsehood by refusing to accept any idea which is not clearly and distinctly perceived by the intellect. Man can know: thus he can be free. This is the formula which explains the link between epistemological optimism and the ideas of liberalism.

This link is paralleled by the opposite link. Disbelief in the power of human reason, in man’s power to discern the truth, is almost invariably linked with distrust of man. Thus epistemological pessimism is linked, historically, with a doctrine of human depravity, and it tends to lead to the demand for the establishment of powerful traditions and the entrenchment of a powerful authority which would save man from his folly and his wickedness. (There is a striking sketch of this theory of authoritarianism, and a picture of the burden carried by those in authority, in the story of The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoievsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.)

—Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge

Despising Other Hours

Like most introverts, he was very dependent upon small, minute-to-minute comforts, no matter whence they came. Fern’s gaze upon life was very decisively inwards. He read much. He reflected much. One of his purest pleasures was an entire day in bed; all by himself, in excellent health. He lived in a quite pleasant surburban flat, with a view over a park. Unfortunately, the park, for the most part, was more beautiful when Fern was not there; because when he was there, it tended to fill with raucous loiterers and tiny piercing radios. […] For years, then, Fern teetered along the tightrope between content and discontent; between mild self-congratulation and black frustration; between the gritty disillusionments of human intimacy and travel (for Fern the two became more and more inseparable), and the truth and power of his dream. It might be a twilight tightrope, but twilight was not an hour which Fern despised.

—Robert Aickman, “Never Visit Venice”

Look At This Perfect Character

The Delicate is pale, limbs pipe-cleaner thin, with a head as shiny hard as beetle-back. Violent, in utero skull tectonics have led to a precipice of brow, a compression of matter past the point of truth. His eyes are crow eyes, and his ear holes winding tunnels to nowhere. He comes in the latter days of afternoon, through blowing snow, dressed in black, while Schubert’s “Eighth” plays magically in the background. He comes to suck the breath out of passing fancies and to treat the infirm of mind, the particularly annoying, to a long sleep. “In order to take the waters,” as he explains it, he comes to a resort town on the edge of reason. Beyond it, the wilderness stretches north to the frozen pole. God has never drawn breath there—the domain of bat-winged demons whose skin is the ringed wood of oak trees. These creatures fly out of the forest at night to snatch up children, their little legs kicking to the moon. To live in Absentia is to live with a soul that is liquid lead.

—Jeffrey Ford, “The Delicate”

Nested Men of Genius

“Is it true, as Valéry said, that every man of genius contains within himself a false man of genius?

—Donald Barthelme, “The Genius”

If Bleakest Batman Wrote a Western

They were about in the morning before daybreak and they caught up and saddled their mounts as soon as it was light enough to see. The jagged mountains were pure blue in the dawn and everywhere birds twittered and the sun when it rose caught the moon in the west so that they lay opposed to each other across the earth, the sun whitehot and the moon a pale replica, as if they were the ends of a common bore beyond whose terminals burned worlds past all reckoning. As the riders came up through the mesquite and pyracantha singlefile in a light clank of arms and chink of bitrings the sun climbed and the moon set and the horses and the dewsoaked mules commenced to steam in flesh and in shadow.

—Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West

(the trick is to read all Cormac McCarthy in a batman voice)