If we cannot expect the peace people to listen to reason, it is because theirs is a movement springing from the decadence of Christian life and from the moral paralysis of those whose lives have been robbed of any transcendental dimension. The curious belief of the peace people that the specter of nuclear annihilation can be exorcised by a series of public moral gestures becomes intelligible when we attribute to them a profane variation on Christian eschatology, from which divine providence and original sin have both been deleted, leaving only a fury of moral activism and the groundless certainty that the obdurate realities of history and human nature can be overcome by the sheer power of moral commitment.

        —from John Gray, “The New Eschatology of Peace,” April 1989

Advocates of collective security who wish to substitute concepts of “justice” for “national aggrandizement” greatly underestimate the ability to win wide acceptance of what constitutes justice when vital interests clash. The same problem of subjective interpretation applies to branding one side or another as the “aggressor.” The related principle, that borders are never to be changed by force, is tantamount to proclaiming that the present divisions of the world are so perfect they should be frozen in time. This is untenable, as the world has always been a dynamic system, something of which Americans should be well aware given the role westward expansion has played in American history and mythology. The application of universal ideals (which are, in fact, not universally accepted) divorced from practical politics and concrete considerations of security, geography, resources, and aspirations is simply unsuited to the world as it is.

        —from William R. Hawkins, “The Surrender of Political and Military Sovereignty,” October 1995

It was fashionable, for a time, to ask the silly question, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we solve our social problems?” The reason we cannot solve our social problems is precisely the reason we can put a man on the moon. That is to say, it was our pragmatism in general and our scientific and technological mentality in particular that made our great material achievements possible. The essence of this mentality is the problem-solving approach. The scientific method isolates problems and solves them: It cannot take the broader view, for anything beyond the immediately demonstrable, testable, measurable, and provable is by definition unscientific. Americans are parodies of the scientific mentality: When anything goes wrong, we fix it, and do not take into account the possibility that our principles may be unsound. We have, for instance, been appalled to learn in recent years that our children are reaching college without having learned to read. Some people responded to the discovery by seriously proposing that we should reorganize the entire educational system from kindergarten upward—and they were branded elitists, racists, or reactionary dodos. Far fewer people considered the possibility that the commitment to universal education is inherently futile, and that other means of civilizing children should be explored. Instead, the nation did what it always does: It tackled the immediate problem by instituting remedial reading classes in college and by dispensing with literacy tests.

        —from Forrest McDonald, “On the Study of History,” February 1991

Frivolity has in the 20th century become a plague of Western societies; and not least of contemporary American society. Of course, many of the greatest achievements of our Western societies and of the United States in particular have fostered this frivolity. The technological and economic progress that have made life easier have obscured our grasp of the fundamental difficulties of human existence. The admirable progress of scientific knowledge and of medical science have made us think that there are no insoluble problems. Nothing is thought to be beyond the powers of the ratiocinative mind, provided with sufficient powers to realize its aspirations. The progress of science, it is thought, will release us from moral obligation and moral dilemmas. The reverence for human life has become fainter. Frivolity in the face of serious things: That is the charge that I make against collectivist liberalism.

        —from Edward Shils. “Liberalism: Collectivist and Conservative,” July 1989


Art happens, said Whistler; die Rose ist ohne Warum, the rose has no why, wrote Angelus Silesius. To explain beauty is to explain it away. . . . When a literary experiment is a failure, as in the case of Finnegans Wake, we worship it and we take good care not to read it; when it succeeds, as in the cases of the Lewis Carroll books and Leaves of Grass, we think of it as easy and inevitable.

        —from forge Luis Borges, “On Walt Whitman,” March 1984

As a small boy, entranced by the written word, I never had the slightest desire to drive a locomotive, pilot an aircraft, captain a ship. The supreme achievement seemed to me to be that of one who had written a book: any kind of book. All through my teenage years I struggled with the short story, the novel, the play, the poem. I was like the man in the story who leapt on his horse and tried to ride off in all directions. Another difficulty lay in finding something to write about. I looked at the circumstance of my small-town rural life and decided, with supreme snobbishness, that it didn’t match up to my literary ambitions. Unfailingly, I wrote about worlds I had never known. Poetry—and poetry was becoming my principal interest—was away and somewhere else. Nobody told me that the raw material of poetry, like the raw, material of all art, resides quite simply under one’s nose.

        —from Charles Causley, “What Gift?” February 1991

Our images of vice are well defined, dramatic, sharp-edged, and energetic. And why not? We live in vice, all of us; we are handy to its smells and tastes, its appetites and brutalities. Our visions of virtue, however, are pallid and dropsical, puny and naive. When we paint an urban utopia, it turns out looking like a plush hotel lobby; when we draw a rural one, it looks like an expensive golf resort. Twenty-four karat boulevards and a mastery of harp technique: These are our common images for heaven. Dante was able to depict a paradise made up of infinite gradations of light, of the kinds and degrees of virtue that described God’s goodness; these were immediately apprehendable by the senses, the mind, and the soul. Yet it is that poet’s images of hell that most people recall. In fact, most readers of Dante never venture further than his Inferno. If Dante’s paradise has not fixed firmly in the minds of most of us—and it has had 600 years to do so—how shall the contemporary writer successfully portray a vision of the ideal, his faith being so much shakier than Dante’s, his intellect so much less powerful, and his talent dwarfish in comparison?

Only a very few artists have been able to offer a convincing delineation of moral triumph, and I have a doleful feeling that none of them is alive at this hour. This then is the first certain failure the experienced writer knows he must face: the inability to outline with any confidence the figure of the ideal. And without this foundation his work, no matter how expertly fashioned, will fall short of his hopes.

        —from Fred Chappell, “Writer and Community,” May 1994

The problems of the literary scene are exacerbated by the attitude of many readers who, as in other products and other aspects of our society, haunted by brand names and victimized by the culture of celebrity, depend on publicity, advertising, and book reviews more than their own good judgment and taste. Strangely, the book-reading public, relatively small as it may be, seems to be singularly easy to manipulate. Add to the hustle of publishers the unavoidable truth that so much that is published, fiction and nonfiction alike, does not speak to or about the lives and values of most Americans, and you have a situation that looks unlikely to change for the better any time soon. New technology may help a little bit—depending on the character of the people who control it. Small presses, operating with low overhead and modest goals, may keep the idea of literature alive, if not well, in the future. Right now some of the university presses are doing some good books and picking up where the big commercial houses have failed. But a glance at the university press books advertised in PMLA does not inspire hope for the future. Read the catalogue of Stanley Fish’s Duke University Press . . . and weep.

        —from George Garrett, “Reading and Weeping,” May 1998

The most astounding scholarly discoveries of today cannot help us in solving [the] problems of human identity.

Literature, however, is relevant to these problems. Literature and its only subject matter, the only game it pursues: the human person. Literature has pursued this game for millennia. It keeps pulling out of the anonymous human mass an individual (always in the singular, never in the plural) to whom it gives the body and soul, face and character, and whom it leads through a certain course of events toward, perhaps, an immortality. It pursues that person’s earthly fate. It lights up the brief moment between two dark unknowns: before and after. It insists that the individual whose life it illuminates is unrepeatable, that he is a person, and thus different from anything else in the universe. It diligently researches that person’s virtues and trespasses, dreams and crimes. Sometimes it offers forgiveness, at other times it is unyielding and austere as if it itself had to answer for its judgments to a higher authority.

        —from Zbigniew Herbert, “Invisible But Present,” August 1996

The only true verisimilitude for sane and healthy human beings is surprisingness; it is the mentally sick who are predictable, and their predictability constitutes their mental sickness. What makes a long marriage possible, so that its participants do not die of boredom with each other, is precisely our capacity to reinvent ourselves and each other, to play the storyteller with our lives and surprise our audience. It is the automatisms of our spouses that are intolerable; the very thing that makes a novelistic character believable is what makes a marriage impossible. No wonder that the easiest kind of novel to write is one about divorce! In this sense the realist psychological novel can only be about damaged people.

Not that complete people act randomly; rather, they are autonomous, they make up their rules through a process of reflection and artistic synthesis that makes perfect sense after it has come into existence and been explained, but which cannot be predicted beforehand by psychological or sociological laws. And the mechanisms of this freedom are to a large extent implicit in the classical artistic tools: in the literary field, poetic meter, dramatic role-playing, sacrificial and performative action, mythic archetypes, and narrative structure, among others. . . .

Literary forms are necessary: Experience has to be transmitted in some agreed or readily comprehensible way. But certain forms, like fashions in dress, can at times become extreme. And then these forms, far from crystallizing or sharpening experience, can falsify or be felt as a burden.

        —from V.S. Naipaul, “Some Thoughts on Being a Writer,” May 1987

Novelists are persons who happen to see life, and the behavior of human beings, in vivid interior images—though in very different ways—so that in a sense Proust has more in common with Harold Robbins than with persons who do not find images taking shape in the mind. . . .

If a character in a novel bears no resemblance whatsoever to any human being we have ever met—nor could ever meet whatever the circumstances, including reincarnation—there is likely to be something wrong in the writing.

        —from Anthony Powell, “Literature and the Real Person,” January 1985

Just over the mountain from Dubrovnik, Kupres, black, burntout, choked with men and cattle, writhed silent among the wooded hills. Not far from it lay the immense Perucica, the last European jungle.

Let the Cross and the Mace clash.

Whose head bursts, woe is him!

sang Petar Petiovic Njegos, prince-bishop of the 19th-century Montenegro. Seven feet tall, this mortal enemy of Bosnian and Hercegovinian Muslims died at 38, a victim of border wars, beheadings, impalements, and an eclectic, European knowledge.

        —from Momcilo Selic, “A Dirge for Bosnia,” May 1988