The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. […] Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritansm; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.

But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate their horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy. […] And great work has already been done. Once they knew that some changes were for the better, and others for the worse, and others again indifferent. We have largely removed this knowledge. For the descriptive adjective ‘unchanged’ we have substituted the emotional adjective ‘stagnant’. We have trained them to think of the Future as a promised land which favoured heroes attain—not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.

– C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1942)


Sometimes hostile witnesses can be useful to your case.

– William H. Gass, Life Sentences: Literary Judgements and Accounts (2012)

All over the world during the nineteenth century, European travellers, soldiers, colonial administrators, adventurers, took photographs of ‘the natives’, their customs, their architecture, their richness, their poverty, their women’s breasts, their headdresses; and these images, besides provoking amazement, were presented and read as proof of the justice of the imperial division of the world. The division between those who organized and rationalized and surveyed, and those who were surveyed.

In itself the photograph cannot lie, but, by the same token, it cannot tell the truth; or rather, the truth it does tell, the truth it can by itself defend, is a limited one.

– John Berger, Understanding a Photograph (2013)

Man will seem, in impoverished circumstances, to be interested only in getting himself fed, and of course if he feeds he will belch and break wind, he will wipe his behind with leaves, he will stopper his heart, allow his belly to rust, his skin to scale, and eventually he will inflate his bladder to embarrassment; but we cannot accurately measure man’s nature in terms of what he must do (he must breathe, for example—all of us manage—yet few of us take much pleasure or even an interest in it); no, we have to observe him in the latitudes; in just those moments when the world unpins his shoulders from the mat; moments in which, if we were speaking of clocks, we would sense a wobble in the works

– William H. Gass, “Groping for Trouts,” The World Within the Word (1978)

She learned, as she began to write, how things grow more real when they are put into words, because without storytelling the past would pale beyond even the pale of paper. The fattest, most familiar story of all is the one we tell ourselves about ourselves, repeatedly, as if before bed, as a daily comfort or admonition, throughout our lives.

– William H. Gass, “Katherine Anne Porter’s Fictional Self,” Life Sentences: Literary Judgements and Accounts (2012)

Over years I have done an archaeology of my own thinking, mainly to attempt an escape from assumptions that would embarrass me if I understood their origins. In the course of this reeducation I have become suspiciously articulate and opinionated about things no doubt best left to the unself-conscious regions of the mind.

– Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (2012)

Only one conglomeration of events can be called “the Holocaust.” To write of “a” holocaust suggests there might have been others, and damages this one’s almost sacred status. Is, then, its singularity enough to deprive it of any place in a customary causal path so that history cannot account for it? Or is the Holocaust just the largest of a class of catastrophes, like eruptions, hurricanes, and landslides are? How many must die to achieve the number necessary to count as a holocaust? Fifty thousand? Four hundred thousand? Three million? Is it like deciding that among winds one is the windiest?

– William H. Gass, “Kinds of Killing,” Life Sentences: Literary Judgements and Accounts (2012)

The most awkward fact in all this doubt is this: remembering, which occurs now, at this split second, does not prove that what is being remembered actually occurred at some other time. I may be convinced that it did, especially if a number of others, the more the better, are convinced too. When I am alone, and the experience, the emotion, the event, was mine and mine alone, how can I say for certain that I have not invented the entire episode, including the faithful memory of it?

– Jeanette Winterson, Art & Lies (1994)

How, in general, do people become slaves of foolish ideologies, support them with treasure, allegiance, and time, and act, at their behest, so vilely, so contrary to their own interest? History is full of absurdities masquerading as absolutes. Like whooping cough, beliefs get to children early, make their symptoms chronic, hold out useless hopes, and offer vain excuses. It is reason’s business to disbelieve, but the voices of reason have as much effect here as frogs in a swamp.

– William H. Gass, “Kinds of Killing,” Life Sentences: Literary Judgements and Accounts (2012)

When you falsify your own life, you can later be open and generous in your account of it, draw upon it for any fiction you may write, confident that your real self’s safety will be assured. You can even second Madame Du Berry’s challenging brag […]: “My life has been incredible. I don’t believe a word of it.” Eventually, however, the curious, and any others who care, will grow skeptical, believe only the worst because they assume only the worst would be concealed, and—the unfortunate consequence often is—they will not mind, after so much misleading, if they mistake a truth for a lie the next time, or even every time.

– William H. Gass, “Katherine Anne Porter’s Fictional Self,” Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts (2012)

Letters may strive to seem natural, conversational, easy, off-the-cuff. They aren’t. They are mostly contrived. The absence of another face, the foreclosure of immediate response—of interruptions, questions, objections—and the inability of smiles, frowns, gestures, exclamations to burst in upon the quiet calm of composition: these felicitous conditions permit the letter to become more apparently candid, more duplicitous, more sincere in appearance, more hypocritical at heart; and because they are “evidence,” because they are “on the record,” and because they can be intercepted, stolen, snooped, leaked, they can be exceedingly guarded, especially self-serving, ardently devoted to their future in an archive.

– William H. Gass, “Kafka: Half a Man, Half a Metaphor,” Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts (2012)