An Uncommonplace Book

Sci-Fi Author: In my book I invented the Torment Nexus as a cautionary tale

Tech Company: At long last, we have created the Torment Nexus from classic sci-fi novel Don’t Create the Torment Nexus

—Alex Blechman

But hold up for a minute: Who is this “we” that’s always turning up in critical writing anyway? We is an escape hatch. We is cheap. We is a way of simultaneously sloughing off personal responsibility and taking on the mantle of easy authority. It’s the voice of the middle-brow male critic, the one who truly believes he knows how everyone else should think. We is corrupt. We is make-believe.

—Claire Dederer

The river of life, of mysterious laws and mysterious choice, flows past a deserted embankment; and along that other deserted embankment Charles now begins to pace, a man behind the invisible gun carriage on which rests his own corpse. He walks towards an imminent, self-given death? I think not; for he has at last found an atom of faith in himself, a true uniqueness, on which to build; has already begun, though he would still bitterly deny it, though there are tears in his eyes to support his denial, to realize that life, however advantageously Sarah may in some ways seem to fit the role of Sphinx, is not a symbol, is not one riddle and one failure to guess it, is not to inhabit one face alone or to be given up after one losing throw of the dice; but is to be, however inadequately, emptily, hopelessly into the city’s iron heart, endured. And out again, upon the unplumb’d, salt, estranging sea.

—John Fowles

To go under a river: there’s a strange thing to do, a really weird idea.

To cross a river, to ford it, wade it, swim it, use boat, ferry, bridge, airplane, to go upriver, to go downriver in the ceaseless renewal and beginning of current: all that makes sense. But in going under a river, something is involved which is, in the central meaning of the word, perverse. There are roads in the mind and outside it the mere elaborateness of which shows plainly that, to have got to this, a wrong turning must have been taken way back.

—Ursula K. Le Guin

I suppose every American, as a free individual, is entitled to live in his or own private world of psychotic delusions. And what is freedom of association but the freedom to associate with other lunatics of a similar persuasion? People say our nation is in decline, but it seems to me like we are coming ever closer to making this part of the American dream come true.

—John Ganz

The Universe, as has been observed before, is an unsettlingly big place, a fact which for the sake of a quiet life most people tend to ignore.

Many would happily move to somewhere rather smaller of their own devising, and this is what most beings in fact do.

For instance, in one corner of the Eastern Galactic Arm lies the large forest planet Oglaroon, the entire “intelligent” population of which lives permanently in one fairly small and crowded nut tree. In which tree they are born, live, fall in love, carve tiny speculative articles in the bark on the meaning of life, the futility of death and the importance of birth control, fight a few extremely minor wars, and eventually die strapped to the underside of some of the less accessible outer branches.

In fact the only Oglaroonians who ever leave their tree are those who are hurled out of it for the heinous crime of wondering whether any of the other trees might be capable of supporting life at all, or indeed whether the other trees are any- thing other than illusions brought on by eating too many Oglanuts.

Exotic though this behaviour may seem, there is no life form in the Galaxy which is not in some way guilty of the same thing, which is why the Total Perspective Vortex is as horrific as it is.

For when you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.”

—Douglas Adams

Speak not of what men deserve. For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward.

Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.

—Ursula K. Le Guin

In this sense, the third rule of cool fits perfectly into the second: the second rule says that cool cannot be manufactured, only observed, and the third says that it can only be observed by those who are themselves cool. And, of course, the first rule says that it cannot accurately be observed at all, because the act of discovering cool causes it to take flight, so if you add all three together they describe a closed loop, the hermenuetic circle of coolhunting, a phenomenon whereby not only can the uncool not see cool but cool cannot be even adequately described to them.

—Malcolm Gladwell

“One must go further, one must go further.” This urge to go further is an old story in the world. Heraclitus the obscure, who deposited his thoughts in his books and his books in Diana’s temples (for his thoughts had been his armor in life, and therefore he hung it in the temple of the goddess), Heraclitus the obscure said: “One cannot walk through the same river twice.” Heraclitus the obscure had a disciple who did not remain standing there but went further–and added: “One cannot do it even once.” Poor Heraclitus, to have a disciple like that! By this improvement, the Heraclitean thesis was amended into an Eleatic thesis that denies motion, and yet that disciple wished only to be a disciple of Heraclitus who went further, not back to what Heraclitus had abandoned.

—Søren Kierkegaard

I had been trying all afternoon, in vain, to think of the name Perth Amboy. It seems now like a very simple name to recall and yet on the day in question I thought of every other town in the country, as well as such words and names and phrases as terra cotta, Walla-Walla, bill of lading, vice versa, hoity-toity, Pall Mall, Bodley Head, Schumann-Heink, etc., without even coming close to Perth Amboy. I suppose terra cotta was the closest I came, although it was not very close.

Long after I had gone to bed, I was struggling with the problem. I began to indulge in the wildest fancies as I lay there in the dark, such as that there was no such town, and even that there was no such state as New Jersey. I fell to repeating the word “Jersey” over and over again, until it became idiotic and meaningless. If you have ever lain awake at night and repeated one word over and over, thousands and millions and hundreds of thousands of millions of times, you know the disturbing mental state you can get into. I got to thinking that there was nobody else in the world but me, and various other wild imaginings of that nature.

Eventually, lying there thinking these outlandish thoughts, I grew slightly alarmed. I began to suspect that one might lose one’s mind over some such trivial mental tic as a futile search for terra firma Piggly Wiggly Gorgonzola Prester John Arc de Triomphe Holy Moses Lares and Penates. I began to feel the imperative necessity of human contact.

—James Thurber

The defendants’ performances are not eleemosynary. They are part of a total for which the public pays, and the fact that the price of the whole is attributed to a particular item which those present are expected to order, is not important. It is true that the music is not the sole object, but neither is the food, which probably could be got cheaper elsewhere. The object is a repast in surroundings that to people having limited powers of conversation or disliking the rival noise give a luxurious pleasure not to be had from eating a silent meal. If music did not pay it would be given up. If it pays it pays out of the public’s pocket. Whether it pays or not the purpose of employing it is profit and that is enough.

—Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

It is obvious also that the plaintiffs’ case is not affected by the fact, if it be one, that the pictures represent actual groups – visible things. They seem from the testimony to have been composed from hints or description, not from sight of a performance. But even if they had been drawn from the life, that fact would not deprive them of protection. The opposite proposition would mean that a portrait by Velasquez or Whistler was common property because others might try their hand on the same face. Others are free to copy the original. They are not free to copy the copy. The copy is the personal reaction of an individual upon nature. Personality always contains something unique. It expresses its singularity even in handwriting, and a very modest grade of art has in it something irreducible, which is one man’s alone. That something he may copyright unless there is a restriction in the words of the act.

If there is a restriction it is not to be found in the limited pretensions of these particular works. … The amount of training required for humbler efforts than those before us is well indicated by Ruskin. “If any young person, after being taught what is, in polite circles, called ‘drawing,’ will try to copy the commonest piece of real work, – suppose a lithograph on the title page of a new opera air, or a woodcut in the cheapest illustrated newspaper of the day – they will find themselves entirely beaten.”

These chromolithographs are “pictorial illustrations.” The word “illustrations” does not mean that they must illustrate the text of a book, and that the etchings of Rembrandt or Steinla’s engraving of the Madonna di San Sisto could not be protected to-day if any man were able to produce them. Again, the act however construed, does not mean that ordinary posters are not good enough to be considered within its scope. The antithesis to “illustrations or works connected with the fine arts” is not works of little merit or of humble degree, or illustrations addressed to the less educated classes; … Certainly works are not the less connected with the fine arts because their pictorial quality attracts the crowd and therefore gives them a real use – if use means to increase trade and to help to make money. A picture is none the less a picture and none the less a subject of copyright that it is used for an advertisement. And if pictures may be used to advertise soap, or the theatre, or monthly magazines, as they are, they may be used to advertise a circus. Of course, the ballet is as legitimate a subject for illustration as any other. A rule cannot be laid down that would excommunicate the paintings of Degas. …

It would be a dangerous undertaking for persons trained only to the law to constitute themselves final judges of the worth of pictorial illustrations, outside of the narrowest and most obvious limits. At the one extreme some works of genius would be sure to miss appreciation. Their very novelty would make them repulsive until the public had learned the new language in which their author spoke. It may be more than doubted, for instance, whether the etchings of Goya or the paintings of Manet would have been sure of protection when seen for the first time. At the other end, copyright would be denied to pictures which appealed to a public less educated than the judge. Yet if they command the interest of any public, they have a commercial value – it would be bold to say that they have not an aesthetic and educational value – and the taste of any public is not to be treated with contempt. It is an ultimate fact for the moment, whatever may be our hopes for a change.

—Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Have I mentioned that I expect death around every turn, that every blue sky has a safe sailing out of it, that every bus runs me over, that every low, mean syllable uttered in my direction seems to intimate the violence of murder, that every family seems like an opportunity for ruin and every marriage a ceremony into which calamity will fall and hearts will be broken and lives destroyed and people branded by the mortifications of love?

—Rick Moody

These are lights that cannot come on again; and we may never be sure of the answers to many individual questions. I shall be content if it is agreed that the questions arise, and therefore that the world cannot have been quite as we have supposed.

—S.F.C. Milsom

That’s when I learned about knowing nothing will get you humiliated and knowing a little bit can get you killed, but knowing all of it will bring you power.

—David Bradley

Now, one of the great lessons I hope you’ve taken away from this series … is that history just keeps happening. Things just keep happening one after the other in an unbroken continuum. Crises, conflicts, accomplishment, setbacks. Old people retire and die, new people are born and replace them. Any random historical year could appear in one biography in the final pages, covering the final days and death, in another biography, in the first pages, covering birth and early childhood. Historical causes produce historical effects that then become historical causes of the next historical effects. World War I originated in the Franco-Prussian War, which came from 1848, which came from the Napoleonic Wars, which came from the French Revolution. Drawing invisible lines to divide up eras and periods in ages is an absolutely artificial exercise, as one day simply follows from the next in a seamless transformation from one day to the next. History passes one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time, one moment at a time. And there’s never a break. There’s never a pause. It’s just the relentless passing of time since the beginning of time.

—Mike Duncan

Commonly, if not invariably, the honorific marks of hand labour are certain imperfections and irregularities in the lines of the hand-wrought article, showing where the workman has fallen short in the execution of the design. The ground of the superiority of hand-wrought goods, therefore, is a certain margin of crudeness. This margin must never be so wide as to show bungling workmanship, since that would be evidence of low cost, nor so narrow as to suggest the ideal precision attained only by the machine, for that would be evidence of low cost.

—Thorstein Veblen

However, much of the effect of an impressive and expensive window is lost if it has to be inserted into a tunnel-like opening in a thick wall. Inevitably, attempts to provide bigger windows set in thinner walls ran into trouble with thrust lines. Norman architecture was basically Roman architecture and cannot be made to do this sort of thing, because it depends for its stability and safety on the use of thick walls. But this did not stop builders from trying, and it has been said of late Romanesque architecture that the question to ask of any particular building is “not whether, but when, the Great Tower fell.”

—J.E. Gordon

As for statutes, problems had developed with the citation of acts by the regnal year of the parliamentary session in which they received the royal assent. Perhaps borrowing from the bibliographic reference, some attorneys encountered problems because they would declare that a statute had been enacted in, for example “2 and 3 E. 6.” The courts held that an act cannot be passed in two years, and consequently the variance was fatal. On the other hand, one lawyer, perhaps aware of some of these cases, tried to cite an act as 4 Philip and Mary. But Mary had been queen regnant for a year before she married King Philip of Spain, who was made titular King of England. So the first year of Philip was the second year of Mary, and there could be no fourth year of Philip and Mary. The act should have been cited as 4 and 5 Philip and Mary. No less a judge than Lord Mansfield held the citation a fatal variance, although he was apologetic.

—Byron D. Cooper

The Romans would laugh their tits off to look at American executions. The Romans had no such paradoxes, no confusion or anxiety over the right to life or privacy or dignity. Dignity was a privilege afforded to the very, very few. Life was something you earned, mostly by being rich, useful, and a citizen who followed the rules. Those who didn’t manage those things deserved everything they got. A Roman would ask what the point of the state murdering someone was if no one got to see it. …

There is, of course, a problem with this. For the Romans, that is. There are about eight million problems for us as modern Western readers with an ingrained sense of individual self and inalienable personal human rights. The problems for the Romans was simpler: once you’ve seen one guy get stabbed or hung or burnt or eaten by a leopard, you’ve basically seen them all. One stabbing is the same as the next. Burnings are barely distinguishable from one another. Animals are a bit unpredictable, but eventually they’re gonna eat the guy’s face and, you know, I already saw that on a mosaic the other day at my mate’s house. …

Roman sources only show public executions as being either very boring or very spectacular. They were either mundane, everyday crucifixions and beheadings or wildly exhilarating theatrical displays praised for their stagecraft. What a modern reader never sees is any writer wrestling with the extraordinarily cavalier approach to human life.

—Emma Southon

It is not because of the few thousand francs which would have to be spent to put a roof over the third-class carriages or to upholster the third-class seats that some company or other has open carriages with wooden benches; it would be a small sacrifice for popularity. What the company is trying to do is to prevent the passengers who can pay the second-class fare from travelling third class; it hits the poor, not because it wants to hurt them, but to frighten the rich. … For the same reason leather and horsehair are meted out so sparingly in the second-class carriages: it is to keep in the first class all passengers who would be willing to pay the price in the absence of a second class. And it is again for the same reason that the companies, having proved almost cruel to third-class passengers and mean to second-class ones, become lavish in dealing with first-class passengers. Having refused the poor what is necessary, they give the rich what is superfluous.

—Jules Dupuit

I met a mine foreman who has a piece of coal with a 1909 gold sovereign embedded in it. I saw an ammonite, apparently squashed in the fossil footprint of a sandal. There is a room in the basement of the Natural History Museum which they keep locked. Among other oddities in there are the tyrannosaurus with a wristwatch and the Neanderthal skull with three gold fillings. What are you going to do about it?

—Dr. Carl Untermond

In this city of the Ruin, an entire manufacturing run of human beings was completed, Jorge said, and then the molds were all used two, three, maybe four times, to save money on newer molds, and if you are lucky you never meet your own double. If you’re lucky.

—Rick Moody

The present author is by no means a philosopher. He has not understood the system, whether there is one, whether it is completed; it is enough for his weak head to ponder what a prodigious head everyone must have these days when everyone has such a prodigious idea. … He writes because to him it is a luxury that is all the more pleasant and apparent the fewer there are who buy and read what he writes. … I throw myself down in deepest submission before every systematic ransacker: “This is not the system; it has not the least thing to do with the system. I invoke everything good for the system and for the Danish shareholders in this omnibus, for it will hardly become a tower. I wish them all, each and every one, success and good fortune.”

—Søren Kierkegaard

In spite of his obvious guilt, Clodius was acquitted after he and his friends mounted a concerted campaign of intimidation and bribery. For the final session, the jurors requested and were granted guards for their protection. When they voted thirty-one to twenty-five for acquittal, it prompted the scornful Catulus to say, “Why did you ask us for a guard? Were you afraid of being robbed?”

—Adrian Goldsworthy

England since the conquest hath known some few good monarchs, but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones: yet no man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honourable one. A French bastard landing with an armed Banditti and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original.

—Thomas Paine

One evening, about the time when bananas were first being imported in Britain, Lord Leconfield was dining in his stately home with a friend. His guest observed that nobody really knew how good a banana could be unless he had tasted one straight off the tree.

Lord Leconfield said nothing at the time, but next morning he sent for his head gardener. “Go,” he told him tersely, “to Kew. Find out how to grow a banana. Come back here and grow one.”

Off went the head gardener. A special greenhouse was constructed. The banana tree was splendid. Lord Leconfield took a lively interest in in its progress until it fructified. “I will have the banana for dinner tonight,” he said as soon as the banana was ripe. And so he did – amid a deadly hush. The head gardener himself was there, concealed behind a screen.

The banana was brought in on a splendid dish. Lord Leconfield peeled it with a golden knife. He then cut a sliver off and, with a golden fork, put it in his mouth and carefully tasted it. Whereupon he flung dish, plate, knife, fork and banana on to the floor and shouted “Oh God, it tastes like any other damn banana!” Banana tree and all were ordered to be destroyed.

—T.W. Korner

It was there that I seemed to hear some mysterious call to go somewhere, and I could not help feeling that if I went straight on and on, and kept going for a long time, I should reach the line where sky and earth met and find the key to the whole mystery there and at once discover a new life, a life a thousand times more tumultuous than ours. I dreamed of a great city as big as Naples, full of palaces, noise, uproar, life. … But then, what didn’t I dream of? And afterwards I could not help feeling that one might find an immense life in prison too.

—Fyodor Dostoyevsky

me holding a gun to a mushroom: tell me the name of god you fungal piece of shit

mushroom: can you feel your heart burning? can you feel the struggle within? the fear within me is beyond anything your soul can make. you cannot kill me in a way that matters

me cocking the gun, tears streaming down my face: I’M NOT FUCKING SCARED OF YOU


If you think that you can think about a thing, inextricably attached to something else, without thinking of the thing it is attached to, then you have a legal mind.

—Thomas Reed Powell

Legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death. This is true in several senses. Legal interpretive acts signal and occasion the imposition of violence upon others: A judge articulates her understanding of a text, and as a result, somebody loses his freedom, his property, his children, even his life. Interpretations in law also constitute justifications for violence which has already occurred or which is about to occur. When interpreters have finished their work, they frequently leave behind victims whose lives have been torn apart by these organized, social practices of violence. Neither legal interpretation nor the violence it occasions may be properly understood apart from one another. …

Precisely because it is so extreme a phenomenon, martyrdom helps us see what is present in lesser degree whenever interpretation is joined with the practice of violent domination. Martyrs insist in the face of overwhelming force that if there is to be continuing life, it will not be on the terms of the tyrant’s law. Law is the projection of an imagined future upon reality. Martyrs require that any future they possess will be on the terms of the law to which they are committed (God’s law). And the miracle of the suffering of the martyrs is their insistence on the law to which they are committed, even in the face of world-destroying pain. Their triumph—which may well be partly imaginary—is the imagined triumph of the normative universe—of Torah, Nomos,—over the material world of death and pain. Martyrdom is an extreme form of resistance to domination. As such it reminds us that the normative world-building which constitutes “Law” is never just a mental or spiritual act. A legal world is built only to the extent that there are commitments that place bodies on the line. The torture of the martyr is an extreme and repulsive form of the organized violence of institutions. It reminds us that the interpretive commitments of officials are realized, indeed, in the flesh. As long as that is so, the interpretive commitments of a community which resists official law must also be realized in the flesh, even if it be the flesh of its own adherents.

—Robert Cover

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

—Andy Warhol