“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” — Oscar Wilde
“For most people will power is a limited resource; if we spend lots of energy controlling our impulses in one area, it becomes harder to control our impulses in others. Or, as the psychologist Roy Baumeister puts it, will power is like a muscle: overuse temporarily exhausts it.” — James Suroweicki, “In Praise of Distraction”
“In punishing wrongdoers, no one concentrates on the fact that a man has done wrong in the past, or punishes him on that account, unless taking blind vengeance like a beast. No, punishment is not inflicted by a rational man for the sake of the crime that has been committed–after all one cannot undo what is past–but for the sake of the future, to prevent either the same man or, by the spectacle of his punishment, someone else, from doing wrong again. But to hold such a view amounts to holding that virtue can be instilled by education; at all events the punishment is inflicted as a deterrent. This then is the view held by all who inflict it whether privately or publicly.” — Plato, Protagoras (trans. Guthrie)
“No one is angered by the thoughts which are believed to be due to nature or chance, nor do people rebuke or teach or punish those who exhibit them, in the hope of curing them; they simply pity them. Who would be so foolish as to treat in that way the ugly or dwarfish or weak? Everyone knows that it is nature or chance which gives this kind of characteristics to a man, both the good and the bad. But it is otherwise with the good qualities which are thought to be acquired through care and practice and instruction. It is the absence of these, surely, and the presence of the corresponding vices, that call forth indignation and punishment and admonition. Among these faults are to be put injustice and irreligion and in general everything that is contrary to civic virtue. In this field indignation and admonition are universal, evidently because of a belief that such virtue can be acquired by taking thought or by instruction.” — Plato, Protagoras (trans. Guthrie)
The voice in “the talking french cat” came to me in a dream. I thought of writing an entire book in that voice, but I couldn’t sustain it, then it was gone. And would a reader really want to spend an entire book, even a slim volume, with that person and that voice? Madness and despair grow so quickly tiresome.
I wrote the first draft of “the talking french cat” ten or eleven years ago. It took me several more years to hammer it into shape, then Mad Hatters’ Review published it earlier this year.
“We mold the best and strongest among ourselves, catching them young like lion cubs, and by spells and incantations we make slaves of them, saying that they must be content with equality and that this is what is right and fair. But if a man arises endowed with a nature sufficiently strong, he will, I believe, shake off all these controls, burst his fetters, and break loose. And trampling upon our scraps of paper, our spells and incantations, and all our unnatural conventions, he rises up and reveals himself our master who was once our slave, and there shines forth nature’s true justice.” — Plato, Gorgias (trans. Woodhead)
“Above the autumnal opacity of the park the night is flushed by a vague reddish glow. In the ravaged upholstery of the treetops crows wake with caws of mindless alarm and, deceived by the false dawn, take off in noisy squads; their yawping, reeling disarray throws tumult and vibrations into the murky redness tartly redolent of herbage and fallen leaves. Eventually the great flurry of loops and turns all over the sky subsides; calming gradually, it descends, lighting in the combed-out tangle of trees in a ragged, provisional file that still shows signs of unrest, rife with misgivings, chatter falling silent, plaintive queries. At last the swarm settles down for good and becomes part of the sibilant stillness of the surrounding languor. And night, deep and late, resumes its sway.” — Bruno Schulz, “Fatherland” (trans. Wieniewska)
“Autumn is the human soul’s yearning for matter, essence, boundary. When for unexplored reasons human metaphors, projects, dreams begin to hanker for realization, the time of autumn is at hand. Those phantoms that, formerly spread out over the furthest reaches of the human cosmos, lent its high vaults the colors of their spectra now return to man, seeking the warmth of his breath, the cozy narrow shelter of his home, the niche that holds his bed.” — Bruno Schulz, “Autumn” (trans. Wieniewska)
Very few of the stories I’ve had published have undergone no substantial rewrite, “substantial” being a subjective term that, whatever it may mean, almost certainly means more than giving a story a “polish” (whatever that may mean). “Rag Doll” was first drafted about fifteen years before I finally got it into a shape a publisher would accept. Mad Hatters’ Review published it earlier this year, along with three other of my stories.
(And on the subject of first drafts, early this afternoon I finished the first draft of the project I’ve been working on for the past four months.)
“Once upon a time, there existed gods but no mortal creatures. When the appointed time came for these also to be born, the gods formed them within the earth out of a mixture of earth and fire and the substances which are compounded from earth and fire. And when they were ready to bring them to the light, they charged Prometheus and Epimetheus with the task of equipping them and allotting suitable powers to each kind. Now Epimetheus begged Prometheus to allow him to do the distribution himself–‘and when I have done it,’ he said, ‘you can review it.’ So he persuaded him and set to work. In his allotment he gave to some creatures strength without speed, and equipped the weaker kinds with speed. Some he armed with weapons, while to the unarmed he gave some other faculty and so contrived means for their preservation. To those that he endowed with smallness, he granted winged flight or a dwelling underground; to those which he increased in stature, their size itself was a protection. Thus he made his whole distribution on a principle of compensation, being careful by these devices that no species should be destroyed.
“When he had sufficiently provided means of escape from mutual slaughter, he contrived their comfort against the seasons sent from Zeus, clothing them with thick hair or hard skins sufficient to ward off the winter’s cold, and effective also against heat, and he planned that when they went to bed, the same coverings should serve as proper and natural bedclothes for each species. He shod them also, some with hoofs, others with hard and bloodless skin.
“Next he appointed different sorts of food for them–to some the grass of the earth, to others the fruit of the trees, to others roots. Some he allowed to gain their nourishment by devouring other animals, and these he made less prolific, while he bestowed fertility on their victims, and so preserved the species.
“Now Epithemeus was not a particularly clever person, and before he realized it he had used up all the available powers on the brute beasts, and being left with the human race on his hands unprovided for, did not know what to do with them. While he was puzzling about this, Prometheus came to inspect the work, and found the other animals well off for everything, but man naked, unshod, unbedded, and unarmed, and already the appointed day had come, when man too was to emerge from within the earth into the daylight. Prometheus therefore, being at a loss to provide any means of salvation for man, stole from Hephaestus and Athena the gift of skill in the arts, together with fire–for without fire it was impossible for anyone to possess or use this skill–and bestowed it on man. In this way man acquired sufficient resources to keep himself alive.” — Plato, Protagoras (trans. Guthrie)
“We have been outsourcing our intelligence, and our humanity, to machines for centuries. They have long been faster, bigger, tougher, more deadly. Now they are much quicker at calculation and infinitely more adept at memory than we have ever been. And so now we decide that memory and calculation are not really part of mind. It’s not just that we move the goalposts; we mock the machines’ touchdowns as they spike the ball. We place the communicative element of language above the propositional and argumentative element, not because it matters more but because it’s all that’s left to us.” — Adam Gopnik, “Get Smart”
“Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Pickles and Fries” is the result of taking a handful of ideas languishing in the workshop, mixing them together to see how they might fit, and making a prose bracelet out of them. It was published in The Writing Disorder on New Year’s Eve last year.
“We played host to mysterious distinguished strangers and lost ourselves in conjectures in our desire to penetrate their disguises. In the evenings everyone gathered in the great hall, where, by flickering candlelight, we listened to one tale or revelation after another. There were times when the plot spun through these stories jumped out of the narrative frame and stepped among us, live and hungry for prey, and tangled us up in its perilous whorl. Sudden recognitions, unexpected disclosures, an improbable encounter pushed their way into our private lives. We lost the ground beneath our feet, placed in jeopardy by contingencies we ourselves had unleashed. From far away the howling of wolves was carried on the air, we brooded over romantic entanglements, ourselves halfway caught up with their coils, while an inscrutable night rustled on the other side of the window, fraught with shapeless aspirations, ardent, incomprehensible confidences, unplumbed, inexhaustible, itself knotted into labyrinthine convolutions.” — Bruno Schulz, “The Republic of Dreams” (trans. Wieniewska)
“The town lives under the sign of the Weed, of wild, avid, fanatical plant life bursting out in cheap, coarse greenery–toxic, rank, parasitic. That greenery grows under the sun’s conjury, the maws of the leaves suck in seething chlorophyll; armies of nettles, rampant, voracious, devour the flower plantings, break into the gardens, spread over the unguarded back walls of houses and barns overnight, run wild in the roadside ditches. It is amazing what insane vitality, feckless and unproductive, lives in this fervid dab of green, this distillate of sun and groundwater. From a pinch of chlorophyll it draws out and extrapolates under the blaze of these summer days that luxuriant texture of emptiness, a green pith replicated a hundred times onto millions of leaf surfaces, downy or furred, of veined translucent verdure pulsing with watery plant blood, giving off the pungent herbal smell of the open fields.” — Bruno Schulz, “The Republic of Dreams” (trans. Wieniewska)
“The honor of parents is a fair and noble treasure to their posterity, but to have the use of a treasure of wealth and honor, and to leave none to your successors, because you have neither money nor reputation of your own, is alike base and dishonorable.” — Plato, Menexenus (trans. Jowett)
“What do I look like? Sometimes I see myself in the mirror. A strange, ridiculous, and painful thing! I am ashamed to admit it: I never look at myself full face. Somewhat deeper, somewhat farther away I stand inside the mirror a little off center, slightly in profile, thoughtful and glancing sideways. Our looks have stopped meeting. When I move, my reflection moves too, but half-turned back, as if it did not know about me, as if it had got behind a number of mirrors and could not come back. My heart bleeds when I see it so distant and indifferent. It is you, I want to exclaim; you have always been my faithful reflection, you have accompanied me for so many years and now you don’t recognize me! Oh, my God! Unfamiliar and looking to one side, my reflection stands there and seems to be listening for something, awaiting a word from the mirrored depths, obedient to someone else, waiting for orders from another place.” — Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass (trans. Wieniewska)
Usually, once I’ve published a piece, I make no more modifications to it. This is a rule I abide by strictly except for those occasions when I choose to break it.
This week I’m posting “Karen and the Dropout,” a story published in 2010 in White Whale Review. Prior to publication, Randi Shapiro, the fiction editor at WWR, emailed me that she thought there was something a little off about the ending, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. I fiercely and in detail defended the choices I had made, and we let it go at that.
About six months later, as I was preparing “Karen and the Dropout” for inclusion in a collection of short stories, I saw that whatever it was Randi had seen and I couldn’t see, it did seem that if I cut the final five words from the story, the ending would be much tighter and significantly less wistful. So that is what I did, and that is the version I have posted to this site. You can go to the WWR site and see the previous version, but I wouldn’t. This one’s better (I emailed Randi after I made the cut, and she agreed).