Once, during their early months in Worcester, a boy from his class had wandered in through the open front door and found him lying on his back under a chair. ‘What are you doing there?’ he had asked. ‘Thinking,’ he had replied unthinkingly: ‘I like thinking.’ Soon everyone in his class knew about it: the new boy was odd, he wasn’t normal. From that mistake he has learned to be more prudent. Part of being prudent is always to tell less rather than more.

– J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997)


The language of the Afrikaans boys is filthy beyond belief. They command a range of obscenity far beyond his, to do with fok and piel and poes, words from whose monosyllabic heaviness he retreats in dismay. How are they written? Until he can write them he has no way of taming them in his mind. Is fok spelled with a v, which would make it more venerable, or with an f which would make it a truly wild word, primeval, without ancestry? The dictionary says nothing, the words are not there, none of them.

– J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997)

Childhood, says the Children’s Encyclopaedia, is a time of innocent joy, to be spent in the meadows amid buttercups and bunny-rabbits or at the hearthside absorbed in a storybook. It is a vision of childhood utterly alien to him. Nothing he experiences in Worcester, at home or at school, leads him to think that childhood is anything but a time of gritting the teeth and enduring.

– J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997)

When the Russians and the Americans were first set before him as antagonists between whom he had to choose (‘Who do you like, Smuts or Malan? Who do you like, Superman or Captain Marvel? Who do you like, the Russians or the Americans?’), he chose the Russians as he chose the Romans: because he likes the letter r, particularly the capital R, the strongest of all the letters.

– J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997)

Change is constant, inherent in the human condition, but the velocity of change is not. It varies greatly from country to country, from century to century. Compared with the coming and going of the generations, the flux of the world’s things occurs so slowly that the world offers an almost stable habitat to those who come and stay and go. Or so it was for thousands of years—including the early centuries of the modern age, when first the notion of change for change’s sake, under the name of progress, made its appearance. Ours is perhaps the first century in which the speed of change in the things of the world has outstripped the change of its inhabitants.

– Hannah Arendt, “Civil Disobedience,” Crises of the Republic (1972)

On Russian Novels

They were long, those damn books; they were full of strange unpronounceable names: loving names, childhood names, nicknames, patronyms; there were kinship relations that one can imagine disconcerting Lévi-Strauss; there was a considerable fuss made concerning the life, sorrows, and status of the peasants, the oblige of the noblesse; and about God, truth, and the meaning of life there was even more; moods came and went like clouds, and characters went mad with dismal regularity. Oh, they were long, those damn books. And they were extravagantly admired for their worst, or most irrelevant, qualities. Must we do that again?

– William H. Gass, “A Fiesta for the Form,” Finding a Form: Essays (1996)

Factual truths are never compellingly true. The historian knows how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life; it is always in danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations, or classes, or denied and distorted, often carefully covered up by reams of falsehoods or simply allowed to fall into oblivion. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs. From this, it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt—as secure and shielded against attack as, for instance, the statement that two and two make four.

It is this fragility that makes deception so very easy up to a point, and so tempting. It never comes into a conflict with reason, because things could indeed have been as the liar maintains they were. Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with a careful eye to making it credible, whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared.

– Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers,” Crises of the Republic (1972)

The great advantage of publicly established and accepted propositions over whatever an individual might secretly know or believe to be the truth is neatly illustrated by a medieval anecdote according to which a sentry, on duty to watch and warn the townspeople of the enemy’s approach, jokingly sounded a false alarm—and then was the last to rush to the walls to defend the town against his invented enemies. From this, one may conclude that the more successful a liar is, the more people he has convinced, the more likely it is that he will end by believing his own lies.

– Hannah Arendt, “Lying in Politics: Reflections on The Pentagon Papers,” Crises of the Republic (1972)

Man makes himself, covering the creature within (if “within” is the right word) with culture’s various costumes. He surrounds himself with himself, so that even the wilderness is soon a plant in his park-sized gardens, a specimen that requires tending to stay wild. By minding his manners, man reaches the level of the all too human, only to become, as he does in some cases, a Western European or a Mandarin, and finally squeezing himself—fat foot for a thin shoe—into some petite subspecies like the French.

– William H. Gass, Finding a Form: Essays (1996)

The most immediate of Nietzsche’s antagonists was his own body, which must have seemed an open rebellion of bones and organs, a mean and rowdy mob of ailments, altering with mood and clime, diet and exercise, capriciously coming and going in ways he could never control or reach an understanding of, although there was always the fear that his father’s madness was his mentor and his father’s death his present enemy. In Schopenhauer’s scheme, which Nietzsche for so long a time embraced, this vigorously weak self was a materialization of his own will, a self which constantly had to be overcome; but what sort of self, he had to wonder, would waylay itself like a bandit on the road?

– William H. Gass, Finding a Form: Essays (1996)