“In an affluent society like the United States, his publisher’s poetry royalty statements make it only too clear to a poet that poetry is not popular with the reading public. To any person who works in this medium, this should be, I believe, cause for more pride than shame. The reading public has learned how to consume even the greatest fiction as if it were a can of soup. It has learned to misuse even the greatest music as background noise to study or conversation. Business executives can buy great paintings and hang them on their walls as status-trophies. Tourists can “do” the greatest architecture in an hour’s guided tour. But poetry, thank God, the public still find indigestible; it still must either be “read,” that is to say, entered into by a personal encounter, or it must be left alone. However pitiful a handful of readers, a poet at least knows this much about them: they have a personal relationship with his work. And this is more than any best-selling novelist dare claim.”
WH Auden, Tradition and Innovation in Contemporary Literature
“No man can draw his own “profile” correctly, as Thoreau said: “It is as hard to see oneself as to look backwards without turning round.” The truth is that our friends—and our enemies—always know us better than we know ourselves. There are, to be sure, a few corrective touches to their picture of us which only we can add, and these, as a rule, are concerned with our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses.
It is, for example, axiomatic, that we should all think of ourselves as being more sensitive than other people because, when we are insensitive in our dealings with others, we cannot be aware of it at the time: conscious insensitivity is a self-contradiction.
Secondly, we can hardly avoid thinking that the majority of persons we meet have stronger characters than we. We cannot observe others making choices; we only know what, in fact, they do, and how, in fact, they behave. Provided their actions are not criminal, their behaviour not patently vicious, and their performance of their job in life reasonably efficient, they will strike us as strong characters. But nobody can honestly think of himself as a strong character because, however successful he may be in overcoming them, he is necessarily aware of the doubts and temptations that accompany every important choice.”
From WH Auden’s translator’s note to Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings, translated from the Swedish by Leif Sjöberg and WH Auden (1964)
“We may not see it, as Dante did, in perfect order, gathered by love into one volume, but we do, living as reading, like to think of it as a place where we can travel back and forth at will, divining congruences, conjunctions, opposites; extracting secrets from its secrecy, making understood relations, an appropriate algebra.”
Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy
“I once took an interest in astronomy, I don’t deny it. Then it was geology that killed a few years for me. The next pain in the balls was anthropology and the other disciplines, such as psychiatry, that are connected with it, disconnected, then connected again, according to the latest discoveries. What I liked in anthropology was its inexhaustible faculty of negation, its relentless definition of man, as though he were no better than God, in terms of what he is not. But my ideas on this subject were always horribly confused, for my knowledge of men was scant and the meaning of being beyond me. Oh I’ve tried everything. In the end it was magic that had the honour of my ruins, and still today, when I walk there, I find its vestiges. But mostly they are a place with neither plan nor bounds and of which I understand nothing, not even of what it is made, still less into what. And the thing in ruins, I don’t know what it is, what it was, nor whether it is not less a question of ruins than the indestructible chaos of timeless things, if that is the right expression. It is in any case a place devoid of mystery, deserted by magic, because devoid of mystery. And if I do not go there gladly, I go perhaps more gladly there than anywhere else, astonished and at peace. I nearly said a dream, but no, no.”
Samuel Beckett, Molloy
“Addendum, three days later: Interestingly enough, I “forgot” to mention an entire train of thought that occupied me on that day, which lies almost a week in the past. Surprising even to me, during the evening conversation among the four of us, I said that I actually did not believe that I could still call myself a Marxist. Not that I would not consider Marxist economic thought–above all with respect to its criticism of capitalism–to be correct and important. but that thought represents only a small segment of human life–just like politics, which has held us in its clutches for far too long. And, perhaps the most important thing: I doubt that the role the economy plays in the motivation of human deeds and misdeeds is as determining as Marx claims. They, the Marxists, concede themselves very little with human nature, which–even that has developed historically–works against them with enormous irrationalities that transcend their own economic interests. The sober economic calculation: if it would at least prevail! No, it probably lies within Marxism itself, as it has presented itself until now, that it could come down to this purely pragmatic economic doctrine and to this utilitarianism, from which not another spark can be struck and which yields nothing for art. I insist upon mysteries that cannot be unveiled by applying an economic law, and upon human autonomy that the individuals cannot surrender to a higher organisation with its claims of omnipotence, without destroying his or her own personality.”
Christa Wolf, One Day a Year (September 27, 1980) (trans. Lowell A. Bangerter)
“Yes, exactly. But every true reader is a writer in force. A true reader is someone who remakes the other’s book. Besides, it’s the movement itself of the book. When you open a book, first of all, it’s a harsh act, because you break it. You open it up, to get out what’s inside. You begin your reading with the first page. You read the first page, you think you’ve retained it all. When you turn the page, what remains of the first, in the second? One or two phrases, an emotion at the moment of an encounter. You read the second page, go on to the third; of the second that you have nonetheless read completely, few things remain. All the rest gets erased. And gradually like that until the end. At the end, the book that you’ve enjoyed, that you’ve read with the greatest attention, becomes a book that’s fragmented by you, by the important pieces of your reading. It’s with that, that you will make your own book. And the author is always surprised when they cite a phrase of his when there were other phrases right beside it that perhaps seemed more important to him. For example, in my own experience, in the last book of The Book of Resemblances there are one or two phrases that were extremely important for me, phrases about myself, that revealed a lot of things. At least I thought so, that they were going to stop there and say, “Ah, look at this, here.” Well, even my closest friends didn’t see these phrases. What does that say? That says you can’t, you, transmit something through the book. It is blank each time. You can’t say, on a certain page, “Here it is,” because the reader doesn’t understand. Finally, it’s that all books work or they don’t. And when it does, it works according to the reading that you have given it. Of my books there have been the most contradictory readings.”
from this interview with Edmond Jabès