The drama of an individual human life, or of the history of humanity as a whole, is not one in which a preexistent goal is triumphantly reached or tragically not reached. Neither a constant external reality nor an unfailing interior source of inspiration forms a background for such dramas. Instead, to see one’s life … as a dramatic narrative is to see it as a process of Nietzschean self-overcoming. The paradigm of such a narrative is the life of the genius who can say of the relevant portion of the past, “Thus I willed it,” because she has found a way to describe that past which the past never knew, and thereby found a self to be which her precursors never knew was possible.
Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
In the order of grace, the native speaker is not one who has never questioned the language s/he speaks and has no awareness of what other possibilities exist for speech; the native speaker is the one who can inhabit language without anxiety, without constant defensive activity on the borders of the territory, because of a knowledge that all truthful speech and action is activated by what is and always remains unsaid, the hinterland of God’s unimaginable judgement. By such an alignment with an unseen and unspoken judgement, the speaker is aligned with the divine liberty: not a gift of independent human freedom but an openness to the alien margins of human discourse out of which comes the raw possibility of change in the direction of absolution and generosity. I do not coincide with myself; this is a given, we might say, of all serious fiction, of the modern fictional consciousness, preoccupied as it is with growth, self-delusion, recognition of self and of difference. But for the Christian imagination, seeking words and pictures for grace, that fictional consciousness has to be connected with not only the mystery of change but what might be called the mystery of absolution, the unpredictable arrival of the liberty both to absolve and to receive absolution, without any denial of the chains of cause and effect. Grace, the strange gift of becoming a native speaker of the language proper to humankind, the language of being a creature, arrives at right angles to planning and deserving. It rightly provokes both bafflement and gratitude; and a fiction that is hospitable to the gospel will work out of both.
All writers think that the world has reached its nadir, its low point … in fact this age will be lamented just like the last – that’s the paradox. What you can say about the world is that … it’s getting infinitely less innocent all the time. It’s been to so many parties, it’s been on so many dates, had so many fights, got its handbag stolen so many times … the accumulation is what makes the world seem that it’s worse always, because it’s never been through so much as it’s been through today …
… I had already had a conversion experience to Wagner the previous year, when a nervous but clever master named F. X. Sempill played us the overture and Venusberg music from Tannhaüser. It’s one of the few early aesthetic experiences I can still recall almost as if it were happening now – those opening woodwinds coming through the little speaker of the Philips gramophone, the quite new sense of restless sexual and emotional excitement. I remember listening to Tannhaüser and gazing out of the window at the surrounding woods, the real world suddenly at a distance. I had the sense that I had been shown something that, though “classical,” was from the future, something I had never glimpsed before and certainly didn’t yet understand but that I knew was going to become important to me.
It seems to me now it was a kind of pubertal initiation into the realm of high art, in which aesthetic experience was more then merely interesting or amusing.
Alan Hollinghurst, The Paris Review 199
To live in the world of creation – to get into it and stay in it – to frequent it and haunt it – to think intently and fruitfully – to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation – that is the only thing – and I neglect it, far and away too much; from indolence, from vagueness, from inattention, and from a strange nervous fear of letting myself go. If I can vanquish that nervousness, the world is mine.
Henry James, [Notebooks]
Poets, and other writers and artists may wish even more fiercely than scientists to be rid of sentimentality and similar vices, but for a poet to wish to be the kind of creature who is not vulnerable to it, is for hi[m] or her to wish to be free of the only idiom in which she can write poetry. To wish to be free of all that makes us vulnerable to cliché, banality, sentimentality and so on in our moral thought – including much of our philosophical thought about morality – is to wish ourselves bereft of ways of elaborating, in the realm of meaning, our full sense of what it means to wrong someone and all that conditions that sense.
Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity
This street is called Camphor Tree Lane. Maybe camphor trees grew here once; there are none now. More probably the name was chosen for its picturesqueness by the pioneer escapists from dingy downtown Los Angeles and stuffy-snobbish Pasadena who came out here and founded this colony back in the early twenties. They referred to their stucco bungalows and clapboard shacks as cottages; giving them cute names like The Fo’c’sle and Hi Nuff. They called their streets lanes, ways or trails, to go with the woodsy atmosphere they wanted to create. Their utopian dream was of a subtropical English village with Montmartre manners; a Little Good Place where you could paint a bit, write a bit, and drink lots. They saw themselves as rearguard individualists, making a last-ditch stand against the twentieth century. They gave thanks loudly from morn till eve that they had escaped the soul-destroying commercialism of the city. They were tacky and cheerful and defiantly bohemian; tirelessly inquisitive about each other’s doings, and boundlessly tolerant. When they fought, at least it was with fists and bottles and furniture, now lawyers.
Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man
To keep his errors down to a minimum, the internal Censor to whom a poet submits his work in progress should be a Censorate. It should include, for instance, a sensitive only child, a practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon and even, perhaps, hated by all the others and returning their dislike, a brutal-foul-mouthed drill sergeant who considers all poetry rubbish.
W H Auden, The Dyer’s Hand
On a rainy May evening [F. W. H.] Myers walked with his famous guest [sc. George Eliot] in the Fellows’ Garden of Trinity College, Cambridge, and she spoke of God, Immortality, and Duty. God, she said, was inconceivable. Immortality was unbelievable. But it was beyond question that Duty was ‘peremptory and absolute’. ‘Never, perhaps,’ Myers says, ‘have sterner accents affirmed the sovereignty of impersonal and unrecompensing Law. I listened and night fell; her majestic countenance turned towards me like a sybil in the gloom; it was as though she withdrew from my grasp the two scrolls of promise, and left me with the third scroll only, awful with inscrutable fate.’ […]
We cannot but be touched by Myers’s little scene, and perhaps the more because we will not fail to perceive the inauthenticity in which it issues: the very hollowness of the affirmation attests to the need it was intended to satisfy. We of our time do not share that need of the Victorians. We are not under the necessity of discovering in the order of the universe, in the ineluctable duty it silently lays upon us, the validation of such personal coherence and purposiveness as we claim for ourselves. We do not ask those questions which would suggest that validation is indeed there, needing only to be discovered; to us they seem merely factitious. But we must feel with those who were impelled to ask them.
Still, with what relief we hear the questions being brushed aside not long after they were put with such urgent hope. ‘The first duty in life’, said one of the great figures of Victoria’s reign, ‘The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.’ And Oscar Wilde went on: ‘What the second duty is no one has yet discovered.’
Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticiy
It was about that time that music, which had always been around me, and was identified, through the scent of a polish in the sitting-room, with the very air I breathed, gained a new and independent grip on me; I suppose it was love that made me see a Mozart concerto or a lyrical and exultant Schumann symphony not simply as a wonder in itself but as a kind of explanation of life. Like love it seemed to admit me to a new dimension of luminous purpose: music raised my expectations to an ideal level that other friends found comic or unbelievable if they weren’t initiates themselves. At school we were played some bits of Janáček, which were the most convulsively life-like music I had ever heard. I gathered up the scraps of Supraphon record-sleeve information, cryptically condensed and obscured by translation, that were all that could be found out by an English boy, and was amazed by the lateness of his flowering and the fact that this bristling old gent should be the one to confirm everything I felt at seventeen about life and sex and being out at night with winds and stars.
Alan Hollinghurst, The Folding Star