Category: Renata Adler

Democracy in actionDemocracy in action

“We voted constantly on everything—issues and offices of every kind. We were expected at every age to have an opinion on all matters . . . . We voted in fifth-grade physics that half a pound of feathers weighed more than half a pound of steel. We were adamant. Knowledge itself was a democracy. We studied fanatically. We were as competitive as only a child state can be. We voted to stone the girl who banged her head—not because she banged her head, but because she was so fat and furtive and whining all the time. She lost a loafer running across the athletic field. None of the stones hit. We were too uncoordinated and too young to throw accurately across the distance we had also, in all fairness, voted for. The space-time continuum became clear to us with that event. So, perhaps, did the quality of mercy, after all.” – Renata Adler, Speedboat

Are you left-handed or right-handedAre you left-handed or right-handed

“There are times when every act, no matter how private or unconscious, becomes political. Whom you live with, how you wear your hair, whether you marry, whether you insist that your child take piano lessons, what are the brand names on your shelf; all these become political decisions. At other times, no act—no campaign or tract, statement or rampage—has any political charge at all. People with the least sense of which times are, and which are not, political are usually most avid about politics.” – Renata Adler, Speedboat


“Now sometimes when I can’t sleep, I wonder. A twenty-four hour curfew every day, for everybody. Suppose we blow up the whole thing. Everything. Everybody. Me. Buildings. No room. Blast. All dead. No survivors. And then I would say, and then I would say, Let’s just have it a little quiet around here.” – Renata Adler, Speedboat


“What is the point. That is what must be borne in mind. Sometimes the point is really who wants what. Sometimes the point is what is right or kind. Sometimes the point is a momentum, a fact, a quality, a voice, an intimation, a thing said or unsaid. Sometimes it’s who’s at fault, or what will happen if you do not move at once. The point changes and goes out. You cannot be forever watching for the point, or you lose the simplest thing: being a major character in your own life.” – Renata Adler, Speedboat

The backhanded complimentThe backhanded compliment

“It certainly does not do to have too low a threshold for being insulted. Even the affectionate insult, or the compliment with any sort of spin on it, can reverberate in memory in awful ways. ‘I love your little fat legs,’ Paul said to Joanne. He had watched her walking toward him on the beach. He was so in love with her that, although he meant it, he may not even have heard what he said, exactly. She never forgave him. She slept with him for another year and then married his enemy and rival, the only man Paul had ever hated in the world. ‘You have beautiful eyes and lovely hands,’ Leroy said to Jane, ‘and when you smile, to me you’re beautiful.’ She never forgave him, either. She married him. Their life together was hell for fifty years. ‘Has anyone ever told you that you’re lovely?’ is, of necessity, a minefield. There is no conceivable proper answer. It all ends in disaster anyway.” – Renata Adler, Speedboat

The rowing orThe rowing or

“There is a mystery in lawyers’ expressions. False and misleading statements, for instance. Always together. False and misleading. Can’t understand what the ‘misleading’ is doing there. It’s always there. And I’ve found, I think, the strongest ‘or’ in language anywhere. It’s the lawyers’ phrase: as he then well knew or should have known. Well knew or should have known. The strongest or.” – Renata Adler, Speedboat

Counting flowers on the wallCounting flowers on the wall

“The wallflower sat reading in the Paris restaurant. There used to be so many categories of wallflower: the anxious, smiling, tense ones who leaned forward, trying; the important, busy, apparently elsewhere preoccupied ones, who were nonetheless waiting, waiting in the carpeted offices of their inattention, to be found. There were wallflowers who clustered noisily together, and others who worked a territory, resolute and alone. And then, there were wallflowers who had recognized for years that the thing was hopeless, who had found in that information a kind of calm.” – Renata Adler, Speedboat

The art of the dealThe art of the deal

“It is not at all clear to me what a negotiation is. Union and management, say, terrorist and foreign minister, buyer and seller, kidnapper and F.B.I. agent, husband and wife, at least two parties anyway, disagree. They exchange views. A strike, perhaps, a war, a bankruptcy, a murder, a divorce impends. One side begins, and claims it can accept no less. The other responds, saying it can afford no more. It is clear to both sides, from the start, that both positions are false. They proceed to bargain then, in what is called good faith. Bad faith exists when a side takes both positions to be absolutely true, then deals with something other than negotiation in its heart—stalling for time, for instance, so that friends can arrive and bomb the house. Good faith negotiation requires a liar’s margin of some sort. ‘I can’t stand it,’ somebody says. ‘I can’t help it,’ someone else replies.” – Renata Adler, Speedboat

If you don’t resist, you won’t be hurtIf you don’t resist, you won’t be hurt

“The idea of hostages is very deep. Becoming pregnant is taking a hostage—as is running a pawnshop, being a bank, receiving a letter, taking a photograph, or listening to a confidence. Every love story, every commercial trade, every secret, every matter in which trust is involved, is a gentle transaction of hostages. Everything is, to a degree, in the custody of every other thing.” – Renata Adler, Speedboat

The driver on the right has the right-of-wayThe driver on the right has the right-of-way

“Drivers of large cars drive extremely badly. So do old men; men wearing hats; men with thick necks and florid faces; hunters; drivers of cars with dented fenders, or with more than one generation in them, or with college stickers on their rearview windows, or with slogans on their bumpers, or with license plates of names or words instead of numbers, or with New Jersey license plates. I have left out matrons, nuns, dyed blondes, old women; their lapses tend to be blunt and unaggressive, like an inability to park or a wrong turn on a one-way street. That is all I know, categorically and without reservation, about drivers. Two other facts I think I know are these. Nobody ever confides a secret to one person only. No one destroys all copies of a document. Also, that it is children, really, perhaps because so much is forbidden to them, who understand from within the nature of crime.” – Renata Adler, Pitch Dark

Same as it ever wasSame as it ever was

“This is the age of crime. I’m sure we all grant that. It’s the age, of course, of other things as well. Of the great chance, for instance, and the loss of faith, of the bureaucrat, and of technology. But from the highest public matters to the smallest private acts, the mugger, the embezzler, the burglar, the perjurer, tax chiseler, killer, gang enforcer, the plumber, party chairman, salesman, curator, car or TV repairman, officials of the union, officials of the corporation, the archbishop, the numbers runner, the delinquent, the police; from the alley to the statehouse, behind the darkened window or the desk; this is the age of crime.” – Renata Adler, Pitch Dark

Finding the valueFinding the value

“What’s new? the biography of the opera star says she used to ask in every phone call, and What else? I’m not sure the biographer understood another thing about the opera star, but I do believe that What’s new. What else. They may be the first questions of the story, of the morning, of consciousness. What’s new. What else. What next. What’s happened here, says the inspector, or the family man looking at the rubble of his house. What’s it to you, says the street tough or the bystander. What’s it worth to you, says the paid informer or the extortionist. What is it now, says the executive or the husband, disturbed by the fifteenth knock at the door, or phone call, or sigh in the small hours of the night. What does it mean, says the cryptographer. What does it all mean, says the student or the philosopher on his barstool. What do I care. What’s the use. What’s the matter. Where’s the action. What kind of fun is that. Let me say that everyone’s story in the end is the old whore’s, or the Ancient Mariner’s: I was not always as you see me now. And the sentient man, the sentient person says in his heart, from time to time, What have I done.” – Renata Adler, Pitch Dark (emphasis in original)

We always sacrifice a virginWe always sacrifice a virgin

“When I learned about the shrew, the poor unevolved, benighted shrew, which will keep jumping high in the air at a place in its accustomed path where an obstacle, a rock perhaps, once was but no longer is, well, I wondered about all those places where, though the obstacles have long been removed, one persists either in the jump or in taking the long way round. It seemed such an unnecessary jolt or expenditure of time and energy. And yet if you have acquired a profound aversion to just such a place simply because of an obstacle that once was there, or an incapacity to discern that the obstacle no longer exists, or an indifference as to whether it exists or not, or if the habit of pointless jumping, or detour, or even turning back dejected has become for you the path itself, or if you have a superstitious need to treat the spot as though the obstacle remained, or even a belief that the discovery that the obstacle is gone is in itself a punishable offense, if any of these things is true for you, then you are lost. Or probably lost, unless the habitual path, the compulsion, the leap, the turning back, the long detour have for you another value. Individuality, for instance, love, obsession. Or for that matter, art.” – Renata Adler, Pitch Dark

We can fix thatWe can fix that

“There exists an order of social problem that appears to be insoluble, but is not. At least not in the terms in which resolution of it is represented as impossible. A problem of that sort has at least some of the following features: it appears immensely complicated, with a resolution of any part of it seeming to bring about the aggravation of another; it has a long history, in the course of which it seems to grow, to accrete difficulties, and to merge and overlap with other problems, so that an attempt to solve the single problem appears hopeless without an assault (for which no sufficient resources can exist) upon them all; perception of the length and nature of that history must be inaccurate, and the terms in which it has been defined must be so imprecise (or so precise, but inapposite) that any formulation of the problem leads inevitably to argument, and great energy is dissipated in argument of that sort. Ideally, in other words, in its historical dimension, such a problem appears to have existed forever; and in its contemporary manifestation to be inextricable from every other problem in the world. Ideally, too, there should have grown up, over time, a number of industries and professions nominally dedicated to the eradication of the problem but actually committed, consciously or unconsciously, but almost inevitably out of self-interest, to the perpetuation of the problem, and of any misconceptions of it, for all time.” – Renata Adler, Pitch Dark

The great balanceThe great balance

“Detectives and prison guards need criminals, social workers require that people should continue to be poor; there are, in short, many workers with a vested interest in the failure of institutions that employ them, and in the insolubility of problems they are paid to solve. The perfect instance occurs in the narcotics laws. A substance, cheap to manufacture, is addictive. It is outlawed. Being outlawed, it becomes rare and expensive. Immediately, and for the first time, it becomes profitable for someone, the seller, to make people addicted to it. The law generates a criminal apparatus which in turn generates a law-enforcement apparatus. With time, their personnel become the same.” – Renata Adler, Pitch Dark

Minuets at the ball of confusionMinuets at the ball of confusion

“The essential storytellers at the drab, frightening, but sometimes heroic, poetic hearth that is the court are, not the lawyers or the judge at all, but the plaintiff, the defendant, and their witnesses. And these, these almost never understand what is being asked of them, what answers are permitted, what is the point of what is being asked. And nobody in this place, least of all that strange audience that is the jury, understands this incomprehension. Just when plaintiff, defendant, or witness thinks he or she has the hang of it, begins to reply, sometimes, triumphantly, sarcastically, in what he or she takes to be the lawyers’ language, there is objection after objection from interrupting lawyers, reprimands from judges.” – Renata Adler, Pitch Dark

Injunction junctionInjunction junction

“Even if I know to a virtual certainty that someone is about to commit what is, quite technically and literally, an illegal act, even a crime, I cannot normally persuade the courts to let me argue that he should be enjoined from going through with it. ‘A man must act somehow,’ Justice Holmes, quite often though by no means always cruel in his decisions, said; and our system favors leaving people free to act. If they choose to act illegally, they simply face the consequences of having done so. So, in one sense, every law is simply a codified injunction to prevent everyone from doing the illegal thing; while what are called injunctions are more rare, more narrow, more particular: this neighbor shall not build this dam this high lest his neighbor suffer the immediate and irreparable harm of being drowned.” – Renata Adler, Pitch Dark

What’s at stakeWhat’s at stake

“In the law, as in everything, excellence is rare and often anonymous. And, in the law, as in almost everything, everything is stories. Under the American Constitution, in fact, everything is required to be, at heart, a story. That is the meaning of the phrase ‘cases and controversies,’ which is what, alone, the Constitution empowers the courts to consider. The courts may not, that is, consider abstractions, generalizations, even hypothetical cases; they may not render what are called ‘advisory opinions’ as to the legality of any possible situation or contemplated act. The courts may only consider concrete, instant cases that actually, concretely come before them—and even those cases can be brought only by those who have ‘standing’ to bring them, in other words, by the actual participants, with the most vital and demonstrable interest in the case. I may not bring suit, in short, because I think someone has done some injury to my neighbor. Only my neighbor himself can bring that suit. So what comes before the court is of necessity, and constitutionally obliged to be, a story; and the only ones permitted to bring the story to the courts’ attention, the only storytellers, are the ones to whom the story happened, whom the facts befell.” – Renata Adler, Pitch Dark