Cantina Quote o’ the Week: H.G. Wells

What on earth would we do with ourselves if something did not stand in our way?

-H.G. Wells

I trust I don’t have to tell you who H.G. Wells is. One of the fathers of science fiction? Bloke who wrote that War of the Worlds book that got turned into a radio drama by Orson Welles and led to a lot of people panicking because they were unclear on the concept of fiction. 

These words of his are some of my favorites, because they are true. It might seem like everything would be wonderful if there were no obstacles in our path, but that way lies boredom. Good thing every life has its obstacles, then. As long as they’re not insurmountable, we can give our minds quite a lot of exercise figuring out how to get round them.

I think if nothing stood in our way, we’d probably put something there, just so we’d have something to contend with. We are a contentious species. And we like to prove we’re clever. Though, as the panic over a radio show proved, we’re not quite as clever as we like to believe…

Cantina Quote o’ the Week: Albert Schweitzer

The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives.

-Albert Schweitzer

This one sometimes gets passed off as a quote by Albert Einstein, but it appears Einstein was himself quoting a fellow German. Albert Schweitzer turns out to be a fascinating man. He was a musician, an excellent one who wrote books on Bach and invented a new way of recording people performing Bach. At the age of thirty, he gave all that up to spend years becoming a doctor, opened a hospital in Africa, and healed people for the rest of his life. He won a Nobel Peace Prize, and his Albert Schweitzer Fellowship continues on.

He was a Christian who wrote The Quest of the Historical Jesus. He also wrote Indian Thought and Its Development, and admired the Jains for their non-violent philosophy. He didn’t believe his best work was his hospital in Africa, but his ethic of Reverence for Life. He saw his hospital as the result of that.

And he was critical of colonialism when being so wasn’t yet fashionable.

This quote of his has been a good guide, a reminder that there is more than one kind of death. The big one at the end isn’t half so scary as the innumerable small ones that can be suffered in the course of a life. It reminds me to live, do my best not to let pieces of myself die away. When the end comes, if there’s a moment to look back, it would be nice to see that while I lived, I was very much alive.

Cantina Quote o’ the Week: Bhagavad Gita

I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.                  

-Bhagavad Gita

This is another translation of the quote that crossed Robert J. Oppenheimer’s mind when he saw the first atomic bomb explode at Trinity site. I like it better than his translation: one word change, a slightly different impact: destroyer, while apt, doesn’t have quite the effect of shatterer. Destroyer is a word; shatterer gives you the cacophony of a world broken into a trillion pieces, the sharp sound of all those shards falling on the ground.

In any form, it was an apt quote for a world-shattering event. The world changed. The people who wielded this weapon now had the power to destroy it utterly. And these words, thousands of years old, were there to describe what it was, precisely, we had become.

I love the old Hindu myths. They’re so often whimsical, sometimes funny, comical, and then they take a sudden turn. They become vast and deep and terrifying and serious. Sometimes they’ve brought me to a new understanding of the world. I come away with different eyes, when I read them, and this is what all good stories should do.

Someday, I might even get around to reading the Bhagavad Gita in its entirety. Myths are wonderful things for a storyteller to mine, and there are stories in those non-Western tales that just beg to be enfolded into my own story world.

But this moment, it stands by itself. I can think of nothing more suitable to say whilst watching a mushroom cloud rise, and knowing what that means.

Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Naguib Mahfouz

The real malady is fear of life, not of death.

-Naguib Mahfouz

All I knew of Naguib Mahfouz was this quote. These words, this simple sentence, reminds me of something very important: people have a tendency to waste their one precious life by clinging to a pathological fear of it. This quote reminds me to live, and not be afraid to live.

Mahfouz was an Egyptian writer and a bureaucrat who was never afraid to stir up a little controversy. He wrote what he felt moved to write. His books may not even stand a chance of being published in his native country, but he didn’t write with that in mind. He wrote what needed to be written. You don’t need to know more about him than a brief description of his novels and what happened to them to know that.

He pissed off fundamentalists, not only by not following their narrow interpretations of acceptable behavior and thought, but by standing up for Salman Rushdie even though he didn’t like his book. They put him on a death list as well. He called Khomeni a terrorist. He said, “no blasphemy harms Islam and Muslims so much as the call for murdering a writer.” They tried to kill him: he lived. A long life, a brilliant life, a life devoid of wife and kids for a long time because he was married to his writing. A life in which he won a Nobel prize for the words he wouldn’t compromise.

He didn’t fall prey to the malady of fearing life.

Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Quintas Ennius

We do not regard what is before our feet; we all gaze at the stars.

-Quintas Ennius

This is the father of Roman poetry, the Homer of Rome, and it’s really too bad his work exists only in fragments. There are many ancient writers I’d love to visit, if I could hop in a time machine and head off for some literary tourism, and he is one.

He wasn’t likely to be the kind of man I’d have enjoyed an evening of conversation with, judging from what’s said of him: a man’s man, sounds a bit macho, and he liked his aristocracy. But who knows? Writers are writers, and it’s just possible a conversation over a bowl of wine or two might have been scintillating. This was a man, trilingual, who liked to say he had three hearts. A three-hearted man probably has got many interesting things to say.

And the things he said! This quote has always struck me as bitter and sweet. It’s true, and it’s hopeful, and it’s a bit sad. He packed a lot of human understanding into these few words. Depending on your mood, you can see it as a celebration or a condemnation. That’s the power of poetry: to give us words that say more than what they would seem to on the surface. (Of course, geologists would need to fiddle the wording a bit: we’re always looking down at the ground. Sometimes, we need to be reminded to look at the stars.)

He also said, “Let no one weep for me, or celebrate my funeral with mourning; for I still live, as I pass to and fro through the mouths of men.” This is our immortality: these words, passed from mouth to mouth, mind to mind.

Night sky observation, India. Image and caption courtesy Sanyamshri via Wikimedia Commons.

Night sky observation, India. Image and caption courtesy Sanyamshri via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Cantina Quote o’ the Week: Mignon McLaughlin

Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.

-Mignon McLaughlin

I haven’t got a Mignon in any of my stories yet, but after reading some of Mignon McLaughlin’s Neurotic’s Notebook lines, I think maybe I should. She’d be sharing a name with a person with a ready pen and a keen ability to cut through bullshit and smokescreens to the truth.

It’s hard to get a sense of her from anything except her writing. She was born in 1913, lived through two world wars and two teenage boys (do I repeat myself?), wrote for Vogue, Redbook, Cosmopolitan and other magazines, became a Managing Editor of Glamour, co-wrote a play with her husband, wrote two books full of aphorisms that are sometimes almost painful in their truth. She had a clear view of gender relations, and religion-wise, seems to have talked herself into a cautious agnosticism – although she had no problem telling God he could do better.

I like to remember the above quote when I see society react to those pushing for a better world. I think it pays to remember that many of the people we venerate now weren’t so venerated in their lifetime, when they were shaking up the status quo. It helps to remember that, when the pushback against equality for women and people of color and LGBTQ folk and so many others becomes vicious and discouraging. Someday, if we never give up, some among us who fought for change will be the dead troublemakers our descendants honor. And there will be a whole new set of troublemakers pushing the boundaries further than we can dream.

 

Cantina Quote o’ the Week: Dorothy Parker

 Every year, back comes Spring, with nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off and the ground all mucked up with plants.

-Dorothy Parker

I like spring, I do, but you have to admit this is an excellent description of spring. Birdsong is lovely – except outside your window when you’re trying to sleep. Plants are beautiful and new life bursting out all over is gorgeous – except it covers up the delicious geology. Yes, this quote works for geology. It really does.

Dorothy Parker was a fascinating person. I’ve heard of her vaguely for years – people are in awe of her wit (which was sharp as flaked obsidian, just as beautiful and cruel). She’s this great writer etc. But I’ve not read her, a sad state of affairs I’ll have to remedy soon.

There was evidence Dorothy was going to be a person to watch out for even in her early years, when she was a half-Jewish girl with a Protestant stepmother attending a Catholic school. She said she was kicked out because she persisted in her assertation that the Immaculate Conception was actually spontaneous combustion. She went on to a stellar career in writing. She wrote for Vanity Fair until her obsidian wit cut powerful people too deeply; she worked as an editorial assistant for Vogue; she wrote for The New Yorker from its beginning in 1925. She published poetry, wrote plays and screenplays, achieved success in Hollywood until her politics got her blacklisted. She fought for civil liberties and civil rights for unpopular people; founded the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, worked for left-wing relief organizations, wrote for New Masses magazine (which was probably partly responsible for her getting branded a Communist and ending up with a thick FBI file). She struggled with depression and suicidal tendencies, bad relationships and injustices, kept writing through it all. And even in death, she helped her causes, leaving her estate to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. foundation, and through this to the NAACP.

And she left us glittering words, sharp and shining, that haven’t dulled a bit with time.

Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Hsun-tzu

If there is no dull and determined effort, there will be no brilliant achievement.

        -Hsun-tzu (Xun Zi)

This one seems particularly appropriate for that madness that is NaNo, doesn’t it just?

Hsun-tzu (or Xun Zi, if you prefer that newfangled modern stuff) lived during the Warring States Period, and managed to do some deep and methodical thinking in chaotic times. You’ve more likely heard of Mencius than him, which is unfortunate, because some of his thinking is quite useful. Like his ideas on Heaven: he determined heaven’s not supernatural but natural, and one’s attention is best paid to people rather than to otherworldly stuff. Hard-headed and practical. Never mind the occasional dragon.

Here’s the passage the above quote came from:

Pile up earth to make a mountain and wind and rain will rise up from it. Pile up water to make a deep pool and dragons will appear. Pile up good deeds to create virtue and godlike understanding will come of itself; there the mind of the sage will find completion. But unless you pile up little steps, you can never journey a thousand li; unless you pile up tiny streams, you can never make a river or a sea. The finest thoroughbred cannot travel ten paces in one leap, but the sorriest nag can go a ten days’ journey. Achievement consists of never giving up. If you start carving and then give up, you cannot even cut through a piece of rotten wood; but if you persist without stopping, you can carve and inlay metal or stone. Earthworms have no sharp claws or teeth, no strong muscles or bones, and yet above ground they feast on the mud, and below they drink at the yellow springs. This is because they keep their minds on one thing. Crabs have six legs and two pincers, but unless they can find an empty hole dug by a snake or a water serpent, they have no place to lodge. This is because they allow their minds to go off in all directions. Thus if there is no dark and dogged will, there will be no shining accomplishment; if there is no dull and determined effort, there will be no brilliant achievement. He who tries to travel two roads at once will arrive nowhere; he who serves two masters will please neither. The wingless dragon has no limbs and yet it can soar; the flying squirrel has many talents but finds itself hard pressed.

As I said, dragons. But the point still stands. He seems to have been a very practical, pragmatic fellow, and the above is good to remember when you’re in the middle of a long, hard slog and wondering if it’s worth keeping on.

Here’s another passage I quite like:

If you do not climb a high mountain, you will not comprehend the highness of the heavens; if you do not look down into a deep valley, you will not know the depth of the earth; and if you do not hear the words handed down from the ancient kings, you will not understand the greatness of learning. Children born among the Han or Yüeh people of the south and among the Mo barbarians of the north cry with the same voice at birth, but as they grow older they follow different customs. Education causes them to differ.

There you are. A whiff of geology, a celebration of learning, and insight into the truth of humanity, all in one short go.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be on with the dull-and-determined in hopes the brilliant will follow.

Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Naguib Mahfouz

The real malady is fear of life, not of death.

-Naguib Mahfouz

All I knew of Naguib Mahfouz was this quote. These words, this simple sentence, reminds me of something very important: people have a tendency to waste their one precious life by clinging to a pathological fear of it. This quote reminds me to live, and not be afraid to live.

Mahfouz was an Egyptian writer and a bureaucrat who was never afraid to stir up a little controversy. He wrote what he felt moved to write. His books may not even stand a chance of being published in his native country, but he didn’t write with that in mind. He wrote what needed to be written. You don’t need to know more about him than a brief description of his novels and what happened to them to know that.

He pissed off fundamentalists, not only by not following their narrow interpretations of acceptable behavior and thought, but by standing up for Salman Rushdie even though he didn’t like his book. They put him on a death list as well. He called Khomeni a terrorist. He said, “no blasphemy harms Islam and Muslims so much as the call for murdering a writer.” They tried to kill him: he lived. A long life, a brilliant life, a life devoid of wife and kids for a long time because he was married to his writing. A life in which he won a Nobel prize for the words he wouldn’t compromise.

He didn’t fall prey to the malady of fearing life.

Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Quintas Ennius

We do not regard what is before our feet; we all gaze at the stars.

-Quintas Ennius

This is the father of Roman poetry, the Homer of Rome, and it’s really too bad his work exists only in fragments. There are many ancient writers I’d love to read, if I could hop in a time machine and head off for some literary tourism, and he is one.

He wasn’t likely to be the kind of man I’d have enjoyed an evening of conversation with, judging from what’s said of him: a man’s man, sounds a bit macho, and he liked his aristocracy. But who knows? Writers are writers, and it’s just possible a conversation over a bowl of wine or two might have been scintillating. This was a man, trilingual, who liked to say he had three hearts. A three-hearted man has got many interesting things to say.

And the things he said! This quote has always struck me as bitter and sweet. It’s true, and it’s hopeful, and it’s a bit sad. He packed a lot of human understanding into these few words. Depending on your mood, you can see it as a celebration or a condemnation. That’s the power of poetry: to give us words that say more than what they would seem to on the surface.

He also said, “Let no one weep for me, or celebrate my funeral with mourning; for I still live, as I pass to and fro through the mouths of men.” This is our immortality: these words, passed from mouth to mouth, mind to mind.