Saturday, October 26, 2013

"How then could I unite with this wild idolater?"

     My longtime friend David Seldin, now of Boston, posted this on my Facebook page Friday.
The start of your 10/19 column reminded me of my favorite passage from Anna Karenina — actually my favorite passage in all literature — when Levin meets his son: 
Smiling, hardly able to restrain his tears, Levin kissed his wife and went out of the dark room. What he felt towards this little creature was utterly unlike what he had expected. There was nothing cheerful and joyous in the feeling; on the contrary, it was a new torture of apprehension. It was the consciousness of a new sphere of liability to pain. And this sense was so painful at first, the apprehension lest this creature should suffer was so intense, that it prevented him from noticing the strange thrill of senseless joy and even pride that he had felt when the baby sneezed.     
    Beautiful of course — Tolstoy is at his best talking about the intricate shadings of love (well, that and horses). But a phrase David used, "my favorite passage in all literature," caught my attention. While I recently scoffed at the Poetry Foundation asking Chicagoans for one "favorite poem" -- that seemed so specific, almost anti-poetic — a favorite passage in literature somehow seems a different case. Indeed; I knew mine immediately. 
     But first, I asked the Hive Intelligence what their favorite passages were, and why. They came up with a solid selection. Here are four:
The Morgan Library, New York City

      Nancy Nall Derringer (a fine blogger you can find here) cited Vladimir Nabokov beginning Part One of Lolita:

      Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.        
    She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
      Nancy explained: "And I love it because it was written by a man whose first language was not English." 

       Heather Joy Swanson offered the famous opening line of Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice:
     It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
     "This sarcasm just sets the tone for the whole book - so unexpectedly funny at times," she said.

       Lane J. Lubell, being young -- he's Ross' age — cited that bard of impassioned youth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, from The Great Gatsby: 
 I looked back at my cousin who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth—but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered ‘Listen,’ a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour. 
         "I hate to be conventional, but I have to be honest," said Lane.

      One more. One of my favorite columnists at the paper, other than myself, is Phil Handler, who offered several passages from Tim O'Brien's great war book, The Things they Carried: 
They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing--these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice.... Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.
     Alas, we can't get to all the tremendous suggestions. Thanks to all who took the time.
     Okay, my turn. Chapter 10 of Moby-Dick, "A Bosom Friend." A wonderful character portrait leading up to, for me, what has to be one of the wryest paragraphs in literature. 
    Ishmael returns to the Spouter-Inn to find Queegueg, "quite alone" and whittling at his little idol, "humming to himself in his heathenish way."
      We get to know the fierce tattooed Polynesian harpooner who, like so many with an outwardly fierce appearance, turns out to be sweet and generous, with his own nobility, "a man who had never cringed and never had had a creditor." He even looks, to Ishmael, rather like the father of our country. 
    "Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed," notes Ishmael, who is sort of mid-19th century American Everyman smartass.
    They share a smoke, and Queequeg declares themselves friends for life, I'll give the first, to set the scene, but it's the second paragraph, beginning "I was a good Christian..." that I'm thinking of when I think of "my favorite" passage in literature, for its wildly-curving train of thought for its good-natured humor and, to be honest, for the sheer relief I felt encountering it after the first 80 pages of the book, much of that spent by Melville prattling on about whaling: 
    After supper, and another social chat and smoke, we went to our room together. He made me a present of his embalmed head; took out his enormous tobacco wallet, and groping under the tobacco, drew out some thirty dollars in silver; then spreading them on the table, and mechanically dividing them into two equal portions, pushed one of them towards me, and said it was mine. I was going to remonstrate; but he silenced me by pouring them into my trowsers' pockets. I let them stay. He then went about his evening prayers, took out his idol, and removed the paper firebrand. By certain signs and symptoms, I thought he seemed anxious for me to join him; but well knowing what was to follow, I deliberated a moment whether, in case he invited me, I would comply or otherwise.      
     I was a good Christian; born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church. How then could I unite with this wild idolator in worshipping his piece of wood? But what is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous God of heaven and earth — pagans and all included — can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible! But what is worship? — to do the will of God? that is worship. And what is the will of God? — to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man to do to me — that is the will of God. Now, Queequeg is my fellow man. And what do I wish that this Queequeg would do to me? Why, unite with me in my particular Presbyterian form of worship. Consequently, I must then unite with him in his; ergo, I must turn idolator. So I kindled the shavings; helped prop up the innocent little idol; offered him burnt biscuit with Queequeg; salamed before him twice or thrice; kissed his nose; and that done, we undressed and went to bed, at peace with our own consciences and all the world.   

     Thanks everyone who offered up favorite passages -- I'm sorry I couldn't list them all, but feel free to add your own in the comments sections below.

Photo atop blog: Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library.


  1. I'll keep mine short, and back to "Gatsby": "Too late, I thought with humiliation of my towels," as Daisy approaches his bachelor bathroom.

  2. I love that one. Ought to be embroidered on guest towels.

  3. “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.”

  4. This isn't from literature per se, rather from an essay titled "The Green Fields of the Mind" by the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale and commissioner of baseball. Its lyricism sums up the love that many of us have for the summer game: "It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops."

    1. I became a comp lit major because of Giamatti, who was a comp lit professor before he was a university president or a baseball commissioner. Great post and great replies. Thanks, Neil and thanks Al too.

  5. From "The Judgment of the Birds" in The Immense Journey (1957), by Loren Eiseley

    ...on the edge of a little glade with one long, crooked branch extending across it, I had sat down to rest with my back against a stump. Through accident I was concealed from the glade, although I could see into it perfectly.

    The sun was warm there, and the murmurs of forest life blurred softly away into my sleep. When I awoke, dimly aware of some commotion and outcry in the clearing, the light was slanting down through the pines in such a way that the glad was lit like some vast cathedral. I could see the dust motes of wood pollen in the long shaft of light, and there on the extended branch sat an enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in his beak.

    The sound that awoke me was the outraged cries of the nestling's parents, who flew helplessly in circles about the clearing. The sleek black monster was indifferent to them. He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch a moment and sat still. Up to that point the little tragedy had followed the usual pattern. But suddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise. Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents.

    No one dared to attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glad filled with their soft rustling and their cries. They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer. There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew. He was a bird of death.

    And he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.

    The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There, in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, anther took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.

  6. "Nature, it seems, is the popular name / For milliards and miliards and milliards / Of particles, playing their infinite game / of billiards and billiards and billiards." -- Piet Hein

  7. Lincoln's 'apple of gold in a picture of silver' doodle (as opposed to any number of other painfully beautiful examples of his prose, from the Second Inaugural [surely the most beautiful presidential address ever, period] through to his House Divided speech).

    This is all the more remarkable as it represents him sorting his thoughts, as president-elect, as the country fell apart in early 1861.

    "All this is not the result of accident. It has a philosophical cause. Without the Constitution and the Union, we could not have attained the result; but even these, are not the primary cause of our great prosperity. There is something back of these, entwining itself more closely about the human heart. That something, is the principle of “Liberty to all”–the principle that clears the path for all–gives hope to all–and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all.

    The expression of that principle, in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy, and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed, people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.

    The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple–not the apple for the picture.

    So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken.

    That we may so act, we must study, and understand the points of danger."

  8. From a River Runs Through It by Norman McLean:

    "Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters."

    I often think of this quote when standing in one of the cold mountain streams running down from the Pisgah mountain ridge in North Carolina. The rocks that make up the riverbed are supposedly some of the most ancient on Earth, and I like to think that they are from "the basement of time."

    1. Mine's from the same work: "'Help," he said, 'is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly.

      "'So it is,' he said, using an old homiletic transition, 'that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don't know what part to give or maybe we don't like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed. It is like the auto-supply shop over town where they always say, "Sorry, we are just out of that part."'

      They're both right, somewhat, and a good chunk of my life going forward after reading "A River Runs Through It" has been trying to live up to the level of the father's understanding while recognizing that the son's understanding works often, too.

      "I told him, 'You make it too tough. Help doesn't have to be anything that big.'"

    2. Apparently, I need help with formatting, which falls more in line with the son's/narrator's definition!

  9. They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!" -- Jack Kerouac, "On the Road"

    It may be trite from overuse, but I think it's perfection.

  10. "The city often looks empty. We usually don't even realize it..."

    Recognize those words? ;)


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