books, gradschool, the academy

the very nature of an answer

During my grad school years, I took a seminar on Derrida to which Derrida himself paid a surprise visit, modestly answering our questions with none of the drama I had imagined reading his written words on the page. He seemed, amazingly, to be saying something, rather than just saying something about the impossibility of saying anything. In one cringe-inducing moment, a peer of mine asked a rambling, self-referential question that began by putting “under erasure” the very nature of an answer. I remember breaking into a broad smile when Derrida responded, after a long pause, “I am sorry, but I do not understand the question.” It seemed like the end of an era: Derrida himself was asking for more clarity.

– Stephen Johnson, “I Was An Under-Age Semiotician,” NYT

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books, quotes

I asked you where you conceal the poison

“Madame, where do you keep the poison you generally use?” said the magistrate, without any introduction, placing himself between his wife and the door.

Madame de Villefort must have experienced something of the sensation of a bird which, looking up, sees the murderous trap closing over its head. A hoarse, broken tone, which was neither a cry nor a sigh, escaped from her, while she became deadly pale. “Monsieur,” she said, “I—I do not understand you.” And, in her first paroxysm of terror, she had raised herself from the sofa, in the next, stronger very likely than the other, she fell down again on the cushions. “I asked you,” continued Villefort, in a perfectly calm tone, “where you conceal the poison by the aid of which you have killed my father-in-law, M. de Saint-Meran, my mother-in-law, Madame de Saint-Meran, Barrois, and my daughter Valentine.”

Alexandre Dumas père, The Count of Monte Cristo, (Ch. 108: The Judge)

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books, politics, quotes

a serious man with a sense of humor

So, if you actually did examine my bookshelves you could probably reach some reasonably accurate conclusions about my age, class, nationality, sexuality and so on. You would see that I’m not some dangerous, volatile, politically extreme nut job. Rather, you would decide that I’m a bookish, cosmopolitan sophisticate, with broad, quirky and unpredictable interests, a taste for literary experimentation, a sense of history, a serious man with a sense of humor and a wide range of sympathies. At any rate, that’s what I’d like you to think.

– Geoff Nicholson, “The Perils of Literary Profiling,” NYT

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books, quotes, writing

somewhat less despondent

“I called the other afternoon, at the laudanum hour, upon Bernard Hudley, the dramatist, and found him, to my astonishment, somewhat less despondent than he had been on my previous visit some months before. ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked anxiously. ‘Can I do anything to depress you?'”

– James Thurber, “Afternoon of a Playwright,” from Credos and Curios, a posthumously published collection of short pieces

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books, quotes

this must be distinctly understood

“There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot–say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance–literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.”
A Christmas Carol, OUP:1989, 7

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books, quotes

unbelievable otherness

I don’t feel much direct relevance of ancient things to modern things. It was the temper of the times, especially in the seventies and eighties when I was getting my degree and teaching, to claim that the project of being a classicist was to find relevance to antiquity and invent courses that convinced students that you could learn everything you needed to know about modern life from studying the ancient Greeks. Well, this is bizarre, to say the least. What’s entrancing about the Greeks is that you get little glimpses, little latches of similarity, embedded in unbelievable otherness, in this huge landscape of strange convictions about the world and reactions to life that make no sense at all.

– poet Anne Carson in Paris Review interview

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