Following the railway lines, nineteenth-century civilization was a slender-tentacled octopus extended upon an immemorial rural quiet.
~ William Irvine, Apes, Angels, and Victorians
Where this mysterious cephalopod had come from and how it had got so big, no one could say. Presumably it had crawled out of the sea one night, or perhaps it had arrived by steamer from a distant star. A few things were certain: it was accompanied by its own parasites in the form of bankers, lawyers, and insurance salesmen. It couldn’t abide the thought of unemployed children. And that film of soot we’re taught was spread all over the cities by belching late-Victorian factories? Ink.
“By Maude’s count, Claire had now cheated her of three or four too many trophies.”
Bathing beauty contest winners (and losers), circa 1920.
Is not general incivility the very essence of love?
~ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
I was once thrown out of a furniture store for daring to return a bunk bed I’d picked up thirty minutes before. On opening the boxes at home, I’d discovered it wasn’t made in the U.S., as was claimed, and was not really solid wood. It smelled of glue and formaldehyde. We didn’t want our kids breathing the fumes at night. “I don’t get you people – environmentalists!” the owner of the store snarled at me. The bed was a special order, he said, and non-returnable. It didn’t matter that no one told me it was a special order. The bed was my problem, not his, and if I didn’t leave the premises, he’d call the cops. Seeing how much he loved me, I tried not to take offence.
Having been unable to do what they would, they have pretended to will what they could.
~ Montaigne, Essays II, 18
You may have noticed that, just before the deathblow, a gazelle will seem to sigh and resign itself to circumstances under the cheetah’s paw – almost as if it had finally found what it secretly wanted all along. Slow the footage for a moment and you’ll get a perfect icon of the peaceable kingdom. It may be one of those odd intersections of wisdom and foolishness in life, a sort of grotesque mercy: to finally choose what you can no longer escape.
“She climbed to the platform with a ticket for the 10:14 limited.”
Photograph by Francis Frith, circa 1850-1870.
…to disarm the tempter.
~ Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Gibbon and Jesus have at least this in common: that neither is generally appreciated for his comic sense. That’s too bad. Jesus interrogates the crowd about John the Baptist: “What did you come out to the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? A man in soft clothing?” It depends on the delivery, I suppose, but I always thought it might have earned him a laugh. Gibbon above is referring to Origen’s infamous self-castration, carried out in obedience to the gospel command to remove offending members. Gibbon expands in a footnote: “As it was his general practice to allegorise Scripture, it seems unfortunate that, in this instance only, he should have adopted the literal sense.”
For what is war? …What is it but the getting together of quiet and harmless people, with their swords in their hands, to keep the ambitious and the turbulent within bounds?
~ Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy
Rather than kill their enemies, Indians of the great plains would sometimes count coup on them – which meant to approach near enough on the battlefield so that they might have killed or injured them, but only to tap them with a stick instead. It was a symbolic deathblow, a humiliation. In the western world, since the age of chivalry, we’ve been more concerned to preserve the honor of the ambitious and turbulent than to preserve their lives. This we call civilization.
But there never were, nor ever can be, centaurs…
~ Lucretius, De rerum natura
The cruelest disappointments of life are never my own failures. It’s easy enough to excuse myself when my standards of conduct prove too ambitious. What’s really unacceptable is a world where cauliflower fails to taste like chocolate, where Martian saucer-riders do not consort with earthlings, and where the northwest woods are barren of sasquatch.