Animals [in zoos] seldom live up to adults’ memories, whilst to children they appear, for the most part, unexpectedly lethargic and dull. (As frequent as the calls of animals in a zoo, are the cries of children demanding: Where is he? Why doesn’t he move? Is he dead?) And so one might summarise the felt, but not necessarily expressed question of most visitors as: Why are these animals less than I believed?

– John Berger, About Looking (1980)


All theories of ultimate origin are only ways of better defining what followed.

– John Berger, About Looking (1980)

[T]he scholars loved their books, stroking the pages with soft pale fingers. The pages responded to the fingers’ touch, and yielded their knowledge gladly to the scholars, who collected it in little boxes of file-cards. When the scholars raised their eyes from their desks they saw nothing to distract them, nothing out of harmony with their books, only the smooth, curved lining of the womb. Wherever the eye travelled, it met no arrest, no angle, no parallel lines receding into infinity, no pointed arch striving towards the unattainable: all was curved, rounded, self-sufficient, complete. And the scholars dropped their eyes to their books again, fortified and consoled. They curled themselves more tightly over their books, for they did not want to leave the warm womb, where they fed upon electric light and inhaled the musty odour of yellowing pages.

But the women who waited outside felt differently. From their dingy flats in Islington and cramped semis in Bexleyheath, they looked out through the windows at the life of the world, at the motor-cars and the advertisements and the clothes in the shops, and they found them good. And they resented the warm womb of the Museum which made them poor and lonely, which swallowed up their men every day and sapped them of their vital spirits and made them silent and abstracted mates even when they were at home. And the women sighed for the day when their men would be expelled from the womb for the last time, and they looked at their children whimpering at their feet, and they clasped their hands, coarsened with detergent, and vowed that these children would never be scholars.

– David Lodge, The British Museum is Falling Down (1963)

Camel […] did not seem to be particularly old, but he had been doing his Ph.D. thesis as long as anyone could remember. Its title—‘Sanitation in Victorian Fiction ’—seemed modest enough; but, as Camel would patiently explain, the absence of references to sanitation was as significant as the presence of the same, and his work thus embraced the entire corpus of Victorian fiction. Further, the Victorian period was best understood as a period of transition in which the comic treatment of human excretion in the eighteenth century was suppressed, or sublimated in terms of social reform, until it re-emerged as a source of literary symbolism in the work of Joyce and other moderns. Camel’s preparatory reading spread out in wider and wider circles, and it often seemed that he was bent on exhausting the entire resources of the Museum library before commencing composition. Some time ago a wild rumour had swept through Bloomsbury to the effect that Camel had written his first chapter, on the hygiene of Neanderthal Man; but Camel had wistfully denied it.

– David Lodge, The British Museum is Falling Down (1963)

From eight-thirty in the morning until eleven he dealt with a case of petty larceny; there were six witnesses to examine, and he didn’t believe a word that any of them said. In European cases there are words one believes and words one distrusts: it is possible to draw a speculative line between the truth and the lies; at least the cui bono principle to some extent operates, and it is usually safe to assume, if the accusation is theft and there is no question of insurance, that something has at least been stolen. But here one could make no such assumption: one could draw no lines. He had known police officers whose nerves broke down in the effort to separate a single grain of incontestable truth; they ended, some of them, by striking a witness, they were pilloried in the local Creole papers and were invalided home or transferred. It woke in some men a virulent hatred of a black skin, but Scobie had long ago, during his fifteen years, passed through the dangerous stages; now lost in the tangle of lies he felt an extraordinary affection for these people who paralysed an alien form of justice by so simple a method.

– Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter (1948)

In the modern way of seeing, reality is first of all appearance—which is always changing. A photograph records appearance. The record of photography is the record of change, of the destruction of the past. Being modern (and if we have the habit of looking at photographs, we are by definition modern), we understand all identities to be constructions. The only irrefutable reality—and our best clue to identity—is how people appear.

– Susan Sontag, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (2007)

More of the Bishop’s wisdom:

“Don’t be personal. Be dry! … Write in the third person as much as possible … No verifying! … Don’t forget that few people are likely to tell more than a small part of the truth: no one tells much of the truth, let alone the whole truth … When people talk they reveal themselves, whether they’re lying or telling the truth … Remember, any lie you are told, even deliberately, is often a more significant fact than a truth told in all sincerity. Don’t correct them, and don’t try to interpret them either.”

What is this, if not a theory of spirituality and a theory of literature?

– Susan Sontag, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (2007)

There have always been people to argue that the truth is sometimes inexpedient, counterproductive—a luxury. (This is known as thinking practically, or politically.) And on the other side, the well-intentioned are understandably reluctant to jettison commitments, views, and institutions in which much idealism has been invested. Situations do arise in which truth and justice may seem incompatible. And there may be even more resistance to perceiving the truth than there is to acknowledging the claims of justice. It seems all too easy for people not to recognize the truth, especially when it may mean having to break with, or be rejected by, a community that supplies a valued part of their identity.

– Susan Sontag, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (2007)

When that notorious beauty-lover Oscar Wilde announced in The Decay of Lying, “Nobody of any real culture … ever talks nowadays about the beauty of a sunset. Sunsets are quite old fashioned,” sunsets reeled under the blow, then recovered. Les beaux arts, when summoned to a similar call to be up to date, did not. The subtraction of beauty as a standard for art hardly signals a decline of the authority of beauty. Rather, it testifies to a decline in the belief that there is something called art.

– Susan Sontag, At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (2007)

We must remind ourselves again that history as usually written (peccavimus) is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting–because it is exceptional. If all those individuals who had no Boswell had found their numerically proportionate place in the pages of historians we should have a duller but juster view of the past and of man. Behind the red facade of war and politics, misfortune and poverty, adultery and divorce, murder and suicide, were millions of orderly homes, devoted marriages, men and women kindly and affectionate, troubled and happy with children. Even in recorded history we find so many instances of goodness, even of nobility, that we can forgive, though not forget, the sins. The gifts of charity have almost equaled the cruelties of battlefields and jails. How many times, even in our sketchy narratives, we have seen men helping one another–Farinelli providing for the children of Domenico Scarlatti, divers people succoring young Haydn, Conte Litta paying for Johann Christian Bach’s studies at Bologna, Joseph Black advancing money repeatedly to James Watt, Puchberg patiently lending and lending to Mozart. Who will dare to write a history of human goodness?

– Will Durant and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (1968)