Bait your hook, drop your line

“I think of writing as a long, tiring, pleasant seduction. The stories you tell, the words you use and work on, the characters you try to give life to, are only tools with which you circle around the evasive thing, unnamed and shapeless, which belongs only to you, and which is a sort of key to all the doors, the true reason that you spend so much of your life sitting at a table tapping the keys, filling pages. The question of every story is always: Is this the right story to seize what lies silent in the depths of me, that living thing which, if captured, spreads through all the pages and animates them? The answer is uncertain, even when one arrives at the end of a story. What happened in the lines, between the lines? Often, after struggles and joys, on the pages there is nothing—events, dialogues, dramatic turns, only this—and you’re frightened by your very desperation.” – Elena Ferrante, “The Author Is Purely a Name” (trans. Goldstein)

What it was about

“On April 19 [1945], we occupied Oranienburg, a city of 25,000 people about 35 miles from Berlin. In the middle of town was a walled compound called Sachsenhausen. Originally built for political prisoners, it was the first concentration camp, older than Dachau. For the first time we came upon survivors—just barely surviving. The majority were women from all over Europe, Jewish and Christian. They were in deplorable condition, incoherent, afraid, crying uncontrollably because they did not know who we were, with our Polish uniforms. I tried all my languages to assure them that they were safe and in good hands now. Some Hungarian women spoke German with an accent, and I told them that we were Polish and that I was Jewish. We gave them food and water from our kitchen and told them that more would be coming. That was very gratifying. I felt that if I died the next day, it was worth it to know that at least I had saved somebody.” – Bernhard Storch (interviewed by Jon Guttman in “Polish Artilleryman on the Eastern Front”)

Orderly genocide

“You cannot possibly imagine what a devastating impact it had on a front-line soldier, entering those factory-like buildings and discovering that this facility [Majdanek] was a death camp. What I saw upon entering that camp was a large building, and I remember there was a sign pointing to a ‘Bad und Disinfektion’ facility. The inside of that barracks was made of concrete, with benches all around the room. In the next room were large square concrete structures without windows, only a small skylight in the ceiling. I think there were six rooms on each side, with heavy steel doors, each with a small opening for looking in. Between the two large buildings were dozens of light-green barracks, and there I saw clothes sorted out, with all kinds of luggage and other items belonging to adults and children. I had to pass dozens of that same type of barracks to reach a crematorium at the other end—as I recall, half a mile. On the way, I saw warehouses full of boots, shoes and little shoes by the thousands, all sorted out to perfection, German style. Further down the road was an enormous mountain of white ashes with small human bones. At that point, I decided to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, and a Christian soldier knelt to pray beside me. For the first time since childhood, I lost my composure. All those hardened soldiers cried together. We had orders to rush back to our front-line positions, but there was one last enormous structure that I had to investigate. It turned out to be the crematorium, with six or seven enormous furnaces and factory-style chimneys. There was also a regular wooden house, where the director of the crematorium used to live.” – Bernhard Storch (interviewed by Jon Guttman in “Polish Artilleryman on the Eastern Front”)

Where you didn’t want to be

“All across Hamburg, the firestorm sucked air to feed itself. The fire raged three miles up, and winds were moving at 150 miles per hour. As the heat hit clouds overhead, a greasy, black rain started falling. On the ground, the intense heat set many people afire. Many people saved themselves by diving into canals or taking refuge in open spaces like soccer fields. Others survived in public shelters that had gas- and smoke-tight doors. But there were few of those. In most shelters, the firestorm drew out the oxygen and replaced it with carbon monoxide. Others were felled by flying timbers or falling bricks or were even dragged off into burning buildings by the wind. In all, more than 40,000 people perished in the three-hour firestorm.” – David H. Lippman, “Allied Aerial Destruction of Hamburg”

Sums it up

“What a lousy earth! He wondered how many people were destitute that same night even in his own prosperous country, how many homes were shanties, how many husbands were drunk and wives socked, and how many children were bullied, abused or abandoned. How many families hungered for food they could not afford to buy? How many hearts were broken? How many suicides would take place that same night, how many people would go insane? How many cockroaches and landlords would triumph? How many winners were losers, successes failures, rich men poor men? How many wise guys were stupid? How many happy endings were unhappy endings? How many honest men were liars, brave men cowards, loyal men traitors, how many sainted men were corrupt, how many people in positions of trust had sold their souls to blackguards for petty cash, how many had never had souls? How many straight-and-narrow paths were crooked paths? How many best families were worst families and how many good people were bad people? When you added them all up and then subtracted, you might be left with only the children, and perhaps with Albert Einstein and an old violinist or sculptor somewhere.” – Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Easily done

“The chaplain had mastered, in a moment of divine intuition, the handy technique of protective rationalization, and he was exhilarated by his discovery. It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.” – Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Lemons, lemonade, etc.

“Google ‘famous failures,’ and you’ll find an entire day’s reading, from the well-worn (Steve Jobs, J. K. Rowling, and Albert Einstein) to the obscure (Alan Hinkes, S. A. Andrée, Akio Morita). We reprint and repeat these tales of failure because we know they end well. They may contain plot twists and surprise endings, but before we even begin reading, we can bet hard money on the outcome. Against all odds, the invention will work, the championship game will be won, and the astronauts will make it back to Earth. We don’t share these stories for their surprise endings, but to remind us that our own mistakes might just be worthwhile in the end.” – Jessica Lahey, The Gift of Failure

Recognizing the difference

“Elementary and secondary school teachers are professional teachers. Professors are professional scholars who share what they know with students as part of their agreement with the university—the rest of their commitment is to their own research and service to the university and their profession.” – Professor Michael Chemers (quoted by Jessica Lahey in The Gift of Failure) (emphases in original)

Let’s get this straight

“A criminal citing any reason or religious text for his or her crime does not make that atrocious act less criminal, nor does it make those who take the classical sources and tradition seriously somehow implicitly connected to what is being done.” – Dr. Hatem Bazian, “ISIS’s compounded ignorance is criminal but not a theology”

Or withholds it altogether

“The worst kind of controlling parenting is the type that either withholds affection or makes it contingent on performance. This kind of parenting hits kids where they are most vulnerable: their basic sense of safety and fear of abandonment. Even subtle withdrawal has a deleterious effect on children’s sense of security.” – Jessica Lahey, The Gift of Failure

Nutty

“Before I joined the army I’d’ve thought it was certain death to dig a hole in the back garden and live in it for the winter, but that’s what we did. The sergeant said, ‘Well, squirrels do it every year.’ ‘Yes,’ I thought, ‘but they don’t man machine guns as well.’ ” – Unidentified British soldier, The True Glory

And it’s easy

“The greatest gift you can give another human being is to let them warm you till, in passing beyond pleasure, your defenses fall, your ego surrenders, its structure melts, its towers topple, lies, fancies, vanities, blow away in no wind, and you return, not to the clay you came from—the unfired vessel—but to the original moment of inspiration, when you were the unabbreviated breath of God.” – William H. Gass, The Tunnel

Yield to merging traffic

“The automobile is the world’s most effective killing machine, with victims outnumbering any war, with millions maimed, shocked, crazed by the car, half the world trashed by its production, made brutal, ugly, used up, useless, with endless highways and hospitals to maintain, most citizens in debt to their eyes for this toy . . . . Mr. Hitler’s Holocaust can’t hold a candle. After all, his is kaput. This way to the gasoline, ladies and gentlemen.” – William H. Gass, The Tunnel

The routine burden of evil

“It is easy to be a victim, you don’t have to do a thing, you simply weep and bleed—but, ah, the beater, to be the beater is not a role whose easy mastery is readily admittable; sympathies in such a cause are not idly, not routinely, not frequently enlisted; and were they to be, what then?” – William H. Gass, The Tunnel

Not a mensch

“Sure, Adolf Hitler knew how to play the piano (badly), how to type (slowly), how to drive a car (erratically), how to draw (inadequately), how to write (drivel), how to remember (photographically), and how to bombast (beautifully). But bombast isn’t bombing. He was in fact a petty little twerp. A man of such meager means he could only wish the way the weasel wishes it were a looker like the tiger and a lord like the lion. What I wonder about are all of those who weren’t twerps who willed what Hitler wished, who pondered and planned and organized and sacrificed in order to establish the thousand-year Reich, who donned the uniforms and fired guns and made planes and prepared food and forged those famous chains of command, who invented and connived and lied and stole and killed, because they willed what the little twerp wished; they, who idolized a loud doll, who loved the twerps-truths, who carried out the wishes of a murderous fool, an ignoble nobody, a failure so unimportant that failure seems a fulsome description of him.” – William H. Gass, The Tunnel

But everyone knows more is better

“Slowly slime is covering the earth, more of it made every day—more whiny people, more filthy thoughts, crummy plans, cruddy things, contemptible actions—multiplying like evil spores (we were told to be fruitful, not to trash the place); so that now there are more artifacts and less art, more that is tame, little that is wild, more people, fewer species, more things, less world, more of the disappointment we all know so well, the defeats which devour us, the hours we spend with our heads buried in our books, blinding our eyes with used up words, while the misspending of our loins leads to more lives and less life—just think (we members of the better species) what divine sparks we might have played at being, and come and gone with spirit; instead, around us, as before, nobodies are killing nobodies for nothing.” – William H. Gass, The Tunnel

The politics of resentment

“Revolutionaries and other malcontents, because they are not in the place of power, or perhaps, in a nation, are the country’s restive minorities, or sometimes because they are spiteful courtiers out of favor: these desperadoes—sort of, aren’t they?—preach a rigid dogma to their followers, and wild relativism to the rest. Anarchists. Communists. Suffragettes. Separatists. Special pleaders. Splinter groups. Sects. The way they try to weaken official opposition, and get a hearing for themselves. Foxes make good chickens, the foxes say, pretending to cluck kindly in the direction of the henhouse. Then, having tempted tolerance to get in, their fangs vote.” – William H. Gass, The Tunnel