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Things Project: Susan Sontag, In America

On the past (and along the way, on Poland):

But the past is the biggest country of all...

*

Poland is full of monuments.  We commemorate the past because the past is a fate.  We are natural pessimists, believing that what has happened will happen again.  Perhaps that is the definition of an optimist: someone who denies the power of the past.

*

...I learned something very interesting the other day.  According to Henryk, until not so long ago nostalgia was regarded as a serious, sometimes fatal illness.  Autumn was thought to be the most dangerous time, and soldiering a particularly vulnerable profession.  Virtually anything, a love letter, a picture, a song, a spoonful of the tasty gruel of one's childhood, a few syllables in the accent of one's native region overheard on the street, could induce the onset of the disease.  The case histories he's read have all appeared in French medical journals, but it seems unlikely that only the French were capable of dying of their attachment to the past.  Poles, we agreed, must have been even more susceptible to this illness, just as Americans have turned out to excel at freeing themselves from the past.  [...]  Presumably, the decline of this illness is one of the many benefits of the progress of civilization: of the steam engine, the telegraph, and regular mail.  But you know Henryk—optimism being foreign to his nature, and also being unable ever to forgo the barbed observation—he says he thinks the decline of this sentiment in its lethal form merely portends the rise of a new illness, the inability to become attached to anything.

*

On writers:

Like many writers, Ryszard did not really believe in the present, but only in the past and in the future.

*

One of those extremely intelligent people who become writers because they cannot imagine a better use of their watchfulness, their sense of being different from others, Ryszard knew that his intelligence could also be a handicap: how good a novelist could he ever become if he found everybody he met either preposterous or pathetic?  One must believe in people to be a great writer, which means one must continually adjust one's expectations of them.

*

Like most writers who are intelligent, Ryszard had long since accustomed himself to being actually two people.

*

He had never felt so much a writer, so delightfully alone.

*

And on writing:

And so, now, I thought if I listened and watched and ruminated, taking as much time as I needed, I could understand the people in this room, that theirs would be a story that would speak to me, though how I knew this I can't explain.

*

There are so many stories to tell, it's hard to say why it's one rather than another, it must be because with this story you feel you can tell many stories, that there will be a necessity in it; I see I am explaining badly.  I can't explain.  It has to be something like falling in love.  Whatever explains why you chose this story—it may, indeed, draw sap from some childhood grief or longing—hasn't explained much.

*

A story, I mean a long story, a novel, is like an around-the-world-in-eighty-days: you can barely recall the beginning when it comes to the end.  But even a long journey must begin somewhere, say, in a room.  Each of us carries a room within ourselves, waiting to be furnished and peopled, and if you listen closely, you may need to silence everything in your own room, you can hear the sounds of that other room inside your head.

*

What writing feels like is following and leading, both, and at the same time.

*

On love:

At the salt mine of Hallein, near Salzburg, the miners have the pretty custom of throwing a wintry bough into one of the disused galleries and then retrieving it two or three months later when, thanks to the waters saturated with salt which have soaked the bough and then receded, it is thickly encrusted down to the tiniest twig with a shining deposit of little crystals, and these rare pieces of jewelry are presented to the lady tourists who visit the mine.  Stendhal claims that falling in love is something like this process of crystallization.  Dipping the idea of his beloved in his imagination, the lover endows her with all perfections, like the crystals on a leafless bough.

*

I knew then that I really had loved him.  Perhaps I have never loved anyone as much.  I loved him with that part of me that wanted to be someone, someone who would do great things in this world.

*

...for being helplessly in love awakens one's better self.

*

And on marriage:

Every marriage, every community is a failed utopia.  Utopia is not a kind of place but a kind of time, those all too brief moments when one would not wish to be anywhere else.

*

What a tyrant I am, Maryna did sometimes think.  But he doesn't seem to mind.  He's so kind, so patient, so husbandly.  That was the true liberty, the true satisfaction of marriage, wasn't it?  That you could ask someone, legitimately demand of someone, to see what you saw.  Exactly what you saw.

*

And on love again:

“They want to make me feel guilty,” I said to Bogdan.  “No,” he replied, you know how gentle he can be, “they want to make you feel loved.”  But, I thought, isn't that the same thing?

*

On self and solitude, on ambition and destiny:

It wasn't a new life M. wanted, it was a new self.

*

She would want to do good for others, but she would never be seduced into forgetting herself.

*

“I don't want to be influenced by anything I see here and think, Oh, this is what an American actor does, or what an American audience applauds.  To find what is deepest in my own talent I have to look for everything within myself.”

*

She needed to be entirely single-minded.  She wanted to experience herself as completely alone.  It occurred to her that she might never be alone again.

*

She required solitude to reconstruct the instincts, the technique, the dissatisfactions, and the taste for effrontery which had made her the actress she was.  The art of walking, the effortlessly upright carriage and certainty of step, needed no refurbishing.  The art of thinking only of herself, essential to true creation—that she could only recover alone.

*

Still, I did think that I could do whatever I set my mind to (I was going to be a chemist, like Madame Curie), that steadfastness and caring more than the others about what was important would take me wherever I wanted to go.

*

But we are always being borne inexorably toward something.

*

You can hope that you have found yourself among largehearted people, passion is a beautiful thing, and so is understanding, the coming to understand something, which is a journey, too.

*

...we are all prisoners of whatever we have become.

*

And finally, on happiness and wanting, and on death and dying:

It is harder for a woman to want a life different from the one decreed for her.

*

Maryna sat down and looked into the mirror.  Surely she was weeping because she was so happy—unless a happy life is impossible, and the highest a human being can attain is a heroic life.  Happiness comes in many forms, to have lived for art is a privilege, a blessing, and women are talented at renouncing sexual felicity.  She heard the closing creak of the dressing-room door.  She listened for the click as it latched.

*

He is waiting to break through seeming and performing, and just be, but there is nothing on the other side of seeming, Marina.  Except death.  Except Death.

*

Dying is, if one is lucky, an anticlimax.


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[Via Giulio Cesare, Santa Marinella]
[domenica 26 giugno 2016 ore 21:28:08] []