Far from commonplace -- six passages that make clear everything that matters

February 02, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

I have half a hundred or so passages that I have stumbled on in a lifetime of reading and that I find myself, without marker, returning to in my shelves. Over a couple of intense days recently I set apart six such bits of prose, a sort of distillation.

All speak to me hauntingly.

The first, as the wisest definition of the human species I know. The second for respectful love (and what good can love be without respect?). The third for going to the very heart of truth of the entire grand business of food and wine, of nourishment. The fourth for bringing alive Biblical faith, and - only incidentally - because I am a fly fisher. The fifth for its beauty of expressing a life purpose. And, finally, the last for its recognition of the basic fabric of American values.

Does anything else matter?

***

"man. In zoology, man is distinguished from other animals especially by his brain and his hands. To his brain primarily he owes speech; to his brain and his hands he owes his mastery of tools and of fire. Stages in his progress toward dominance of the earth are the Old Stone Age, the period of beginnings, far longer than the sum of later ages; the New Stone Age, when agriculture was introduced and highly developed; the Bronze Age, marked by its work in metal, its invention of the wheel, and its utilization of the ox and the horse as draft animals; and the Iron Age. Possibly the 18th cent. began a new age, characterized by its use of water power, the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, and electricity. Man is gregarious, but has not mastered a social organization more ambitious than that of the New Stone Age; his attempts are the subject matter of history."

-- "The Columbia Encyclopedia," copyright 1935, 14th printing, 1944.

***

"I grew up kissing books and bread.

"In our house, whenever anyone dropped a book or let fall a chapati or a 'slice,' which was our word for a triangle of buttered leavened bread, the fallen object was required not only to be picked up but also kissed, by way of apology for the act of clumsy disrespect. I was as careless and butterfingered as any child and, accordingly, during my childhood years, I kissed a large number of 'slices' and also my fair share of books.

"Devout households in India often contained, and still contain, persons in the habit of kissing holy books. But we kissed everything. We kissed dictionaries and atlases. We kissed Enid Blyton novels and Superman comics. If I'd ever dropped the telephone directory I'd probably have kissed that, too.

"All this happened before I had ever kissed a girl. In fact it would almost be true, true enough for a fiction writer, anyhow, to say that once I started kissing girls, my activities with regard to bread and books lost some of their special excitement. But one never forgets one's first loves."

-- "Imaginary Homelands," by Salman Rushdie, 1992.

***

"A great waiter died, and all of the other waiters were saddened. At the restaurant, sadness was expressed. Black napkins were draped over black arms. Black tablecloths were distributed. Several nearby streets were painted black - those leading to the establishment in which Guignol had placed his plates with legendary tact. Guignol's medals (for like a great beer he had been decorated many times, at international exhibitions in Paris, Brussels, Rio de Janeiro) were turned over to his mistress, La Lupe. The body was poached in white wine, stock, olive oil, vinegar, aromatic vegetables, herbs, garlic, and slices of lemon for twenty-four hours and displayed en Aspic on a bed of lettuce leaves. Hundreds of famous triflers appeared to pay their last respects. Guignol's colleagues recalled with pleasure the master's most notable eccentricity. Having coolly persuaded some innocent to select a thirty-dollar bottle of wine, he never failed to lean forward conspiratorially and whisper in his victim's ear, 'Cuts the grease.'"

-- "City Life," by Donald Barthelme, 1968.

***

"In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ's disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."

-- "A River Runs Through It," by Norman Maclean, 1976.

***

"I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."

-- On accepting the Nobel Prize for literature, William Faulkner, 1950.

***

"In other countries, art and literature are left to a lot of shabby bums living in attics and feeding on booze and spaghetti, but in America the successful writer or picture-painter is indistinguishable from any other decent business man."

-- "Babbitt," by Sinclair Lewis, 1922.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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