This is where I'm going to put quotes and anecdotes and stories that I find moving or funny or particularly notable in some way.
"`What hills, what hills, are those, my love
Those hills so far and high?"
"Those are the hills of heaven, my love,
But not for you or I.'"
"At least, not yet."
- Emma Bull, Bone Dance
The Duke of Wellington once came upon a little boy sitting at the side of the road, crying as if his heart would break. "Come now, that's no way for a young gentleman to behave. What's the matter?" he asked. "I have to go away to school tomorrow," sobbed the child, "and I'm worried about my pet toad. There's no one else to care for it and I shan't know how it is." The Duke reassured him, promising to attend to the matter personally.
After the boy had been at school for little more than a week, he received the following letter: "Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington presents his compliments to Master ---- and has the pleasure to inform him that his toad is well."
In the course of a chequered career, I have seen many unwholesome spots; but for godforsaken, dry-sucked, flyblown wilderness, commend me to the Upper Nile. A desolation of desolations, an infernal region, a howling waste of weed, mosquitos, flies and fever, backed by a groaning waste of thorns and stones - waterless and waterlogged. I have passed through it, and have now no fear for the hereafter.
- Ewart S. Grogan, one of the first westerners to cross the Sudan
It is when we try to grasp another's intimate needs that we realize how wavering, misty and dim are these others with whom we share the warmth of the sun and the sight of the stars.
- Joseph Conrad
- Neal Stephenson, Diamond Age
The king [Alexander the Great] himself had lost none of his tactical flair and panache (once again he scored a notable victory by marching fifty miles through waterless desert before dawn), but his men were at the end of their tether. Like frightened and desperate troops the world over, they began to fight with savage, almost hysterical cruelty. Rapine and wholesale massacre became commonplaces; even Tarn, for whom Alexander can do little wrong, claims (with some exaggeration) that `among Alexander's campaigns this is unique in its dreadful record of mere slaughter.' Resistance, stimulated by the Brahmin priestly caste, became correspondingly more stubborn, and this in turn revealed the demoralization of Alexander's hitherto invincible phalanx.
Twice they refused to mount the scaling-ladders during a siege, until the king himself led the way, and shamed them into following him. On the second occasion a soothsayer (doubtless sensing the troops' reluctance) warned Alexander against pressing the attack: the omens indicated danger to his life. Alexander looked at him sharply. "If anyone interrupted you while you were about your professional business," he snapped, "I have no doubt you would find it both tactless and annoying, correct?" The seer agreed. "Well," said the king, "my business - vital business - is the capture of this citadel; and I don't intend to let any superstitious crackpot stand in my way." With that he shouted for the scaling-ladders to be brought up. The men hung back, hesitating. Furious, Alexander snatched a ladder himself - there would seem to have been no more than two or three available - leaned it against the parapet, and went straight up, holding a light shield over his head as protection.
When he reached the top, he quickly cut down the defenders barring his way, and stood alone for a moment on the battlements - a perfect target for any archer. His friends shouted to him to come back. Instead, with splendid but foolhardy bravado, he jumped down inside the citadel. His back against the wall, and protected on one side by a large tree (which suggests that the struggle took place at ground-level) he proceeded to take on all comers single-handed. After a moment he was joined by three other Macedonians: Leonatus, Peucestas his shieldbearer, and a highly decorated Guards officer named Abreas. These should have been the first of many - his gesture had had its desired effect - but such a crowd of soldiers now came swarming up the ladders that they collapsed into matchwood, leaving Alexander temporarily cut off.
While frantic Macedonian sappers battered their way through a postern-gate, with mattocks and axes, the king and his three faithful aides held off a multitude. Stones, bolts, every kind of missile clattered on their shields and helmets as they laid about them. Abreas fell, shot in the face. Then a long Indian arrow drove clean through Alexander's corslet and breast, just above the lung. He dropped on one knee, half-fainting, but still had the strength to run his sword through another assailant before he collapsed altogether. Peucestas stood over the king as he lay there, covering him with the sacred shield of Ilium, hemmed in by eager attackers. But by now rescue was on the way. One assault-group scaled the wall on a series of improvised pitons. The postern-gate yielded, and a crowd of furious Macedonians charged through into the citadel, killing every man, woman and child they found there. Meanwhile Alexander was borne away on his shield to the royal pavilion; word went round that he was either dead or dying.
To extract the arrowhead proved a perilous operation. it was leaf-shaped and barbed, about three inches long by two wide, and lodged deep in the breastbone beside the heart. When it had been finally cut out - one account says that Perdiccas did the job with his sword, because no surgeon could be found, or was willing to take the risk - a major haemorrhage followed, and Alexander lost consciousness. His attendants barely succeeded in staunching the flow of blood; for a week the king hung between life and death. No one believed he could survive, and a premature but circumstantial report of his death spread rapidly through the area. The Indians at once recovered confidence, while in Alexander's base camp the news caused sheer consternation.
His men could not imagine themselves under any other leader. No one else seemed qualified to replace him. Now he was dead they would never get home again. At the Beas they had had a comparatively safe line of retreat. Here they were surrounded on all sides by hostile and war-like tribes, who would fight all the more fiercely without Alexander's name to sap their courage.
Even the rivers suddenly looked wider. "Every difficulty seemed hopelessly insoluble without Alexander to get them through." (Arrian 6.12.2) Nothing could more clearly demonstrate the personal and charismatic quality of the king's leadership - or its fundamental limitations.
All he had built up depended on the awe and inspiration caused by his physical presence; the moment he was gone, his empire split into anarchic warring fragments, without any central principle or authority to hold it together, or halt the centrifugal explosion which followed so soon upon his death. When this false rumour reached Bactria, some three thousand Greek mercenary-settlers at once revolted, and set out westward for home - an ominous foretaste of things to come. At the same time his prestige and personal authority were so overwhelming that men who afterwards founded royal dynasties and became great generals in their own right - a Seleucus, a Ptolemy, a Perdiccas - were wholly eclipsed by him. He had perhaps the most extraordinary and talented team of subordinates in all history; yet till the day of his death subordinates they remained, competent staff-officers and nothing more. Only Alexander could control them - yet so masterfully did he do the job that his troops saw none of them as his natural or predestined successor.
Almost the moment he recovered consciousness, the king wrote a public letter to the troops at headquarters, squashing the rumour of his death, and promising he would be with them as soon as he was fit to travel. But by now the men were in such a state that they flatly refused to credit what they heard. The letter, they said, was a forgery, something concocted by Alexander's officers as a device for boosting morale. When this news reached the king's ears, he knew that only his personal appearance could forestall a serious breakdown of discipline. His wound was still uncicatrized; but, fit or not, he must move to base camp at once. He was carried on a litter to the Ravi; two vessels were lashed together, and his daybed set on a high platform between them, where he could easily be seen from the river-bank. Let the Indians learn that Alexander still lived, and lose their false hopes.
But he was still dreadfully weak: so weak, indeed, that his boat travelled some distance ahead of the others, `in order that the quiet which he still needed...might not be interfered with by the beat of the oars.' (QC 9.6.2) As they approached base camp, he ordered the stern awning to be removed, so that he was plainly visible in the sunlight. Even now the troops remained dubious. This motionless figure was Alexander's corpse, they muttered, not a living man, not their commander. Then the king raised his hand, weakly, in greeting, and a great cheer went up. But something more was needed, some proof that Alexander not only lived, but was indeed aniketos, invincible.
When the boat put in to shore, a litter was waiting for him. He told his attendants to take it away and to bring him his horse. With what iron exercise of will one can scarcely imagine, he got up, mounted, and slowly rode into camp in full sight of his troops. A sudden spontaneous storm of applause broke out, `so loud that the river-banks and neighboring glens re-echoed with the noise' (Arrian 6.13.3). As he drew near his pavilion he dismounted, and walked the rest of the way. His veterans crowded around him, touching his arms and clothes with superstitious awe, as though to make sure he was not a ghost. Wreaths and flowers were showered on him. Then he passed out of sight into his test - where, after this supreme effort, he probably at once lost consciousness. Even Alexander's extraordinary physique had its limitations, and there are signs that he never fully recovered from the effects of this appalling wound.
- Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon, 356-323
Man an boy I've seen th' Dimmycratic party hangin' to th' ropes a score iv times. I've seen it dead an' burrid an' th' Raypublicans kindly buildin' a monymint f'r it an' preparin' to spind their declinin' days in th' custom house. I've gone to sleep nights wondhrin' where I'd throw away me vote afther this an whin I woke up there was that crazy-headed ol' loon iv a party with its hair sthreamin' in its eyes, an' an axe in its hand, chasin' Raypublicans into th' tall grass. `Tis niver so good as whin' tis broke, whin rayspictable people speak iv it in whispers...
- Mr. Dooley
Woke up yesterday morning where there is not a chicken to crow for day and remembered that on September 27 next Bessie Smith will have been dead for fifty years.
She was killed a few miles from Clarksdale, Mississippi. The gods could not have selected a more appropriate place to close her epic, because Clarksdale is not very far from the railroad tracks where the Southern used to cross the Yellow Dog and where Miss Susie Johnson's Jockie Lee had gone.
September is a while away. But what fitter day for filing an advance notice of this special occasion could there be than July 4, which is sacred to the falling-short but undiscouragable pursuit of happiness that is most of what the works of Bessie Smith are about. Most but, as usual with great subjects, by no means all.
The rising sun ain't gonna set in the East no more - "Hard Time Blues"
To distill a complexity into the sparest of direct statements and still preserve intact its paradox was among the subtler of Bessie's arts. We have no way to know the source of most of her lyrics; she must have picked up a good many in the carnivals and others were written for her by hands more practiced. But a lot of these words have to be her very own and they bring us the sense of being in the company of the last of the Anglo-Saxon poets. There are, as an instance, those lines in "Lost Your Head Blues" that have been authenticated as pure improvisation: "Once ain't for always and two ain't but twice." I have puzzled over them off and on through my conscious life and am yet to be sure precisely what they mean. All that I know with certainty is that they are entirely beautiful.
If I ever get my hands on a dollar again,
I'm gonna hold on to it till the eagle grin.
- "Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out"
Or "My heart's on fire but my love is icy cold." No generation is long enough to produce more than one writer who can bring off this cadence so perfect that, when you think you remember it and look it up, you find that you were wrong because you had allowed some bit of dross - say, an adverb - from your own literary baggage to intrude and spoil the rhythm and taint the purity of the original. Those of us who learned to write from the blues are to be envied, and those of us who have since forgotten the lesson are to be pitied.
Thirty days in jail and I got to stay there so long.- "Jailhouse Blues"
"Jailhouse Blues" was her first record and the first of hers I ever owned, which is to say that it was the one I have played most and thus the one I have loved most, because the record of Bessie's you have heard most often ends up the deepest in your heart.
I also saw and heard her once at the old Howard Theater in Baltimore in 1933, and was too overwhelmed for any coherent recollection. Witnesses to the apparitions of creatures from another world are seldom useful for details. I have only two memories. One is the shock of the recognition of how faintly even her records conveyed the immensity of her actual presence.
The other involves one of my companions, who was far from having conquered his baby fat and was indeed huge enough to be the most conspicuous figure in the house except of course Bessie herself. At one point she descended from higher things to "One-Hour Woman," one of the requisite dirty songs her grandeur somehow always kept from being quite disgusting, and then she noticed Freddy and, like giantess calling out to giant, she began singing that she had found in him her one-hour man.
He turned turkey red and fled the theater. Long afterward I ran into him and wondered as tactfully as I could if he remembered the afternoon we had gone to hear Bessie. He replied that he had and that, even though dozens of women had since bruised his heart, it was the supreme regret of his life that he had not held his ground and heard the whole set.
"Is it true," he asked, "that she sang `Muddy Water'?" I answered that she had and his sigh had resonances of sorrow and loss not unworthy of her own. We would still have no more used for her any name except the bare and stately "Bessie" than we would have spoken of Juno as Mrs. Jupiter. Goddesses do not have last names.
A while back I fell into one of those tiresome discussions where the other party says you take Julius Erving and I'll take Larry Bird and you take Sarah Vaughan and I'll take Ella Fitzgerald. There was no disposing of such nonsense except to observe that the years have taught me to be grateful for having them all, but I had to say that Sarah Vaughan is the greatest jazz singer I have ever heard. "What about Bessie Smith?" a bystander inquired. I could only answer that I had concluded that there could never have been a Bessie Smith; the molds where they stamp out human beings are just too small for stuff of those proportions.
- Murray Kempton, "Bessie Smith: Poet"
And if you ask how I regret that parting
It is like flowers falling at Spring's End
Confused, whirled in a tangle
What is the use of talking, and there is no end of talking
There is no end of things in the heart.
- Li Po
Hal isn't old enough yet to know that this is because numb emptiness isn't the worst kind of depression. That dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain. Authorities term this condition clinical depression or involutional depression or unipolar dysphoria. Instead of just an incapacity for feeling, a deadening of the soul, the predator-grade depression Kate Gompert always feels as she Withdraws from secret marijuana is itself a feeling. It goes by many names - anguish, despair, torment, or q.v. Burton's melancholia or Yevtuschenko's more authoritative psychotic depression - but Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.
It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self's most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency - sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying - are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.
It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed. There is no way Kate Gompert could ever begin to make someone else understand what clinical depression feels like, not even another person who is herself clinically depressed, because a person in such a state is incapable of empathy with any other living being. This anhedonic Inability To Identify is also an integral part of It. If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain, a clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one.
- David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest