Category Archives: Literature

The Monument of Language on the Menacing Shore of the Ocean of Gibberish

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Rousseau made the point that writing becomes necessary when speech fails to protect our identity. The written word may be a weak second best to lived experience, but it’s still pretty powerful—our only path to meaning and inner order. I keep being haunted by this phrase of [French poet and philosopher, Paul] Valéry’s: ‘I thought to erect a minor monument of language on the menacing shore of the ocean of gibberish.'”

Polish-Born American journalist, writer and literary critic Francine du Plessix Gray (1930-2019) responding to a question from Regina Weinreich, an interviewer from The Paris Review, about French semiologists who see writing as absence rather than presence. Gray began her career as a reporter, then moved to editing, and finally freelance writing. She became a staff writer for The New Yorker in the late 1960s. Subsequently she began her teaching career in the mid 1970s at City College of New York, followed by Yale University, Columbia University, and Princeton University. She won awards for several books, including Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism, Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress, andThem: A Memoir of Parents.

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Best Advice for Writers: B. J. Chute


Beatrice Joy Chute (1913-1987), known as B. J. Chute, was an American novelist and shorty-story writer, adjunct professor of English at Barnard College, and a past president of the PEN American Center, a nonprofit that supports writers. In the 1930s she wrote short stories for several publications, including The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. She is best known for her novel Greenwillow, published in 1956, about young love and self-discovery. The novel was adapted into a Broadway musical of the same name in 1960 by Frank Loesser. Regrettably, as of this writing, there is no article about Chute in Wikipedia — an editorial oversight that should definitely be rectified. Chute, who taught creative writing for many years, offered this advice to aspiring writers:

“Imagination is as necessary to a novelist or short-story writer as the spinning of webs is to a spider and just as mysterious… Imagination cannot be created, but it can be fostered, and this fostering is part of the writer’s duty. It is not enough to congratulate oneself on having been gifted (lovely word!) with imagination, though it is certainly a major cause for rejoicing. The imagination, like the intellect, has to be used, and a creative writer ought to exercise it all the time. There is no idea, however insignificant or vague it may be, that the imagination cannot touch to new beginnings, turning it around and around in different lights, playing with it, listening to it.”

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For further reading: Good Advice on Writing by William Safire and Leonard Safir

The Struggle for Verbal Consciousness is a Great Part of Life

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Man struggles with his unborn needs and fulfillment. New unfoldings struggle up in torment in him, as buds struggle forth the midst of a plant. Any man of real individuality tries to know and to understand what is happening, even in him­self, as he goes along. This struggle for verbal consciousness should not be left out in art. It is a very great part of life. It is not superimposition of a theory. It is the passionate struggle into conscious being.”

From Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence. In the novel, an introspective school inspector, Rupert Birkin, based on the author himself, attempts to achieve authentic selfhood by reconciling the dualistic struggle for fulfilling his passions and the struggle for self-knowledge (passion vs intellect). Lawrence had written Women in Love as part of a larger novel; however the publisher, Thomas Seltzer, decided to publish them as two separate novels. The first, The Rainbow, was published in 1915; the second, Women in Love, was published in 1920. Due to the sexual content of the novels that upset the delicate sensibilities of the time, both were considered very controversial and banned for several years. Despite that controversy, legendary literary critic Harold Bloom believes that Women in Love is one of the most important and influential in Western culture.

The Secret to a Great Life: Amor Fati

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsThe great Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus believed that philosophy was not just a theoretical discipline but a way of life. During his life (55 – 135 AD), he endured and saw more than his share of adversity. He was born a slave and was crippled (there are conflicting accounts: he was either born that way or one of his masters crushed his leg). Eventually, after the death of Nero in 68 AD, Epictetus obtained his freedom and traveled to Epirus, Greece to teach philosophy. Fortunately for us, his wisdom and teachings are preserved in the Discourses and Enchiridion. The secret to a great life, according to Epictetus, was what Nietzsche called amor fati, a Latin term meaning “a love of fate” or “love of one’s fate.” Specifically, Epictetus wrote: “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.” In other words, don’t curse your fate: accept it — furthermore: love it. Epictetus and the stoics believed that everything that happens in one’s life — whether good or bad — is fate’s way of reaching its ultimate purpose: shaping you into the person you should be.

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The Greatest Love Letters of All Time

alex atkins bookshelf literatureThe 20-year correspondence between Pierre Abelard (1079-1142), a medieval French scholastic theologian and philosopher, and Heloise d’Argenteuil (c 1090-1164), a French Latin and Greek scholar (and later a nun), are considered some of the greatest love letters of all time. The letters were originally written in Latin and first published in Paris in 1616 (one of very rate first editions is owned by the British Museum). However, it wasn’t until 1722 that the letters were finally published in English. Since then, more than 60 editions have been published. Nevertheless, the important point to make is that long ago, people did not share their affection with fleeting, impulsive texts, tweets, and emojis — they actually took the time to write thoughtful handwritten letters to one another, conveying their love with eloquence, romance, and profound depth of feeling. But you be the judge — compare this stunningly beautiful and eloquent passage from Heloise to Abelard, in which she extols the virtue of letters, with any text or tweets you have ever read:

“If a picture, which is but a mute representation of an object, can give  such pleasure, what cannot letters inspire? They have souls; they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions, they can raise them as much as if the persons them­selves were present; they have all the tenderness, and the delicacy of speech, and sometimes even a boldness of expression beyond it.

We may write to each other; so innocent a pleasure is not denied us. Let us not lose through negligence the only happiness which is left us, and the only one perhaps which the malice of our enemies can never ravish from us. I shall read that you are my husband and you shall see me sign myself your wife. In spite of all our misfortunes you may be what you please in your letter. Letters were first invented for consoling such solitary wretches as myself. Having lost the substantial pleasures of seeing and possessing you, I shall in some measure compensate this loss by the satisfaction I shall find in your writing. There I shall read your most sacred thoughts; I shall carry them always about with me, I shall kiss them every moment; if you can be capable of any jealousy let it be for the fond caresses I shall bestow upon your letters, and envy only the happi­ness of those rivals. That writing may be no trouble to you, write always to me carelessly and without study; I had rather read the dictates of the heart than of the brain. I cannot live if you will not tell me that you still love me; but that language ought to be so natural to you, that I believe you cannot speak otherwise to me without violence to yourself. And since by this melancholy relation to your friend you have awakened all my sorrows, ‘tis but reasonable you should allay them by some tokens of your unchanging love.” [From Letter II, The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise edited by Honnor Morten, 1908]”

The remarkable story of forbidden love begins when Abelard and Heloise first met. At that time, Abelard, 37 years old, was the Professor of Logic and Canon at Notre Dame. He was one of the most celebrated men of his day — a brilliant, respected intellectual and teacher. Heloise, 19 years old, was his student, a Latin and Greek scholar. Initially Abelard was her tutor, but they fell deeply in love and continued their affair for some time at the home of her uncle and guardian, Fulbert. Marriage was out of the question since it would have prevented Abelard’s advancement in the Church and caused a scandal at the university. Nevertheless, they consummated their passionate love and had a child out of wedlock (a son, named get this — Astrolabe, after the scientific instrument that measures the altitude of a celestial body). To avoid Fulbert’s wrath, Abelard married Heloise, something she resisted. But she humiliated her uncle when she repeatedly denied the marriage and preferred to be called Abelard’s mistress. To protect her from her uncle, Abelard suggested that Heloise hide at a convent at Argenteuil where she had been brought up (although she lived there, she had not taken vows). Fulbert was incensed and wanted to punish and humiliate the professor. Filbert hired some thugs to storm into Abelard’s chambers and castrate him. Disfigured and fearing for his life, Abelard (now 40) fled the university and became a monk at the Monastery of St. Denis. He also encouraged Heloise to take vows as a nun, so that she was safe and no man could have her. She initially protested but eventually consented, and at the age of 22, took her vows. Fast forward ten years. Heloise received a letter from Abelard in which he discussed his unhappiness. She wrote back, revealing the pent-up passion from a decade of restraint. The lovers subsequently exchanged four letters after that and then, suddenly, the letters stopped. Abelard died of scurvy, at the age of 63, in 1142 at the priory of St. Marcel. Twenty years later Heloise, who had become the head of a convent, died. They were buried next to one another. Almost 600 years later, Josephine Bonaparte was so moved by their story, she ordered that their remains be moved to the Pere Lachiase Cemetery in Paris, where lovers from all over the world come to pay tribute to the famous couple by leaving letters at the tomb. The most passionate and romantic love stories of all time is also immortalized in Alexander Pope’s 1717 poem, “Eloisa to Abelard.”

In the introduction to the 1908 edition, Honnor Morten describes the legacy of Abelard and Heloise this way: “Abelard, the great leader and logician, his treatises are forgotten, his fame as a philosopher is dead — only his love letters live. And Heloise, the beautiful and the learned, who stands second to Sapho, is known merely as an example of the passionate devotion of woman. So they remain to us, the typical lovers; he with man’s mania to master, she with woman’s one desire to submit. No love letters that have ever been written but have contained phrases common to one another and to be found here; but no love letters that have ever been published have equalled these in the old passionate tale of the struggle to forget — to sink the love of the human in the love of the divine.”

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An Artist Must Be Content to Deliver Himself Wholly Up To It


alex atkins bookshelf literatureIn a letter written on April 3, 1855, legendary British author Charles Dickens explains to Mrs. Winter that his craft makes huge demands on his time and he must therefore politely decline many social invitations: “A necessity is upon me now — as at most times — of wandering about in my old wild way, to think. I could no more resist this on Sunday or yesterday than a man can dispense with food, or a horse can help himself from being driven. I hold my inventive capacity on the stern condition that it must master my whole life, often have complete possession of me, make its own demands upon me, and sometimes, for months together, put everything else away from me. If I had not known long ago that my place could never be held, unless I were at any moment ready to devote myself to it entirely, I should have dropped out of it very soon. All this I can hardly expect you to understand — or the restlessness and waywardness of an author’s mind. You have never seen it before you, or lived with it, or had occasion to think or care about it, and you cannot have the necessary consideration for it. “It is only half an hour,” —  “It is only an afternoon,” — “It is only an evening,” people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes, — or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometimes worry a whole day. These are the penalties paid for writing books. Whoever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go my way whether or no.”

In short, Dickens believed that a writer had to be very disciplined. In his own case, Dickens not only had to set aside enough time in his schedule to write when the muses inspired him, but he also had to make time to carefully study and ponder human nature. Biographer Fred Kaplan, who has written a highly-regarded biography of Dickens, shares a very illuminating story of when Henry James and Dickens met in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1867. Although terribly brief, their encounter was an epiphany in James’s life. He observed Dickens alone in a room and noted his aura of authority and discipline; James described the famous author’s look as a “merciless, military gaze.” Kaplan explains: “[James] realized that Dickens could get maximum amount of life out of the smallest experience. That, combined with his talent, was conducive to the creation of great art… James learned that the great artist has to use his energy in the most disciplined and ruthless way.” Like Shakespeare, Dickens had the instinctive ability to place humanity under a microscope — meticulously probing, dissecting, distilling, analyzing  — to collect the fodder for his life’s work.

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The Art of Fiction: Every Story Begins With an Ending

alex atkins bookshelf literatureKatherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) was an American journalist and writer, best known for her insightful short stories. She was born as Callie Russel Porter but changed her name to Katherine Anne Porter to honor her grandmother who raised her after her mother passed away. Porter has an interesting literary lineage: she is related to Daniel Boone the American frontiersman, and famous short-story writer O. Henry (the pseudonym of William Sydney Porter). Perhaps there really is a gene for great short-story writing…

Porter published several collections of short stories: Flowering Judas; Pale Horse, Pale Rider; and The Leaning Tower and Other Stories. Her complete collection of short stories published in 1964 won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (1966) and she was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In an interview with Barbara Thompson for the Paris Review in the spring of 1963, Porter discussed the importance of the ending of the story. In fact, she believed that every story begins with an ending and that until the end is known, there is no story. She elaborates: “That is where the artist begins to work: with the consequences of acts, not the acts themselves. Or the events. The event is important only as it affects your life and the lives of those around you. The reverberations, you might say, the overtones: that is where the artist works. In that sense it has sometimes taken me ten years to understand even a little of some important event that had happened to me. Oh, I could have given a perfectly factual account of what had happened, but I didn’t know what it meant until I knew the consequences. If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it. I know where I’ m going. I know what my goal is. And how I get there is God’s grace.”

Thompson then comments that that is a very classical view of the work of art, ie, that a story must end in resolution. Porter responds: “Any true work of art has got to give you the feeling of reconciliation—what the Greeks would call catharsis, the purification of your mind and imagination—through an ending that is endurable because it is right and true. Oh, not in any pawky individual idea of morality or some parochial idea of right and wrong. Sometimes the end is very tragic, because it needs to be. One of the most perfect and marvelous endings in literature — it raises my hair now — is the little boy at the end of Wuthering Heights, crying that he’s afraid to go across the moor because there’s a man and woman walking there.”

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Read related posts: Best Writing Advice From Famous Writers
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For further reading: The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter by Kathering Anne Porter
Katherine Anne Porter Conversations by Katherine Anne Porter
Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews edited by Malcolm Cowley

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