Now I no longer live in our clear, rational world; I live in the ancient nightmare world, the world of square roots of minus one.
— We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin

His first impulse was to get up and speak to her. But a shyness and lack of simplicity, entirely alien to his nature, had, in the past, crept into his relationship with her now and held him back. He decided not to disturb her and not to interrupt his work. To keep away from the temptation of looking at her he turned his chair sideways, so that its back was almost against his table; he tried to concentrate on his books, holding one in his hand and other on his knees.

Yurii Andreievich noticed again what he had observed long ago in Meliuzeievo. “She does not want to plead or to look beautiful,” he thought. “She despised all that aspect of a woman’s nature; it’s as though she were punishing herself for being lovely. But this proud hostility to herself makes her ten times more irresistible.

"How well she does everything! She reads not as if reading were the highest human activity, but as if it were the simplest possible thing, a thing that even animals could do. As if she were carrying water from a well, or peeling potatoes."

These reflections calmed him. A rare peace descended upon his soul. His mind stopped darting from subject to subject. He could not help smiling; Antipova’s presence affected him the same way as it had affected the nervous librarian.

The actors by their presence always convince me, to my horror, that most of what I’ve written about them until now is false. It is false because I write about them with steadfast love (even now, while I write it down, this, too, becomes false) but varying ability, and this varying ability does not hit off the real actors loudly and correctly but loses itself dully in this love that will never be satisfied with the ability and therefore thinks it is protecting the actors by preventing this ability from exercising itself.

It is (to describe it figuratively) as if an author were to make a slip of the pen, and as if thus clerical error became conscious of being such. Perhaps this was no error but in a far higher sense was ab essential part of the whole exposition. It is, then, as if this clerical error were to revolt against the author, out of hatred for him, were to forbid him to correct it, and were to say, “No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a e witness against thee, that thou art a very poor writer.”

By every logical definition, he was an unhealthy specimen, he did on his worst night and late afternoons give out not only cries of pain but cried for help, and when nominal help arrived, he did decline to say in perfectly intelligible language where it hurt. Even so, I do open cavil with the declared experts in these matters—the scholars, the biographers, and especially the current ruling intellectual aristocracy educated in one or another of the big public psychoanalytic schools—and I cavil with them most acrimoniously over this: they don’t listen properly to cries of pain when they come. They can’t of course. They’re a peerage of tin ears. With such faulty equipment, with those ears, how can anyone possibly trace the pain, by sound and quality alone, back to its source? With such wretched hearing equipment, the best, I think, that can be detected, and perhaps verified, is a few stray, thin overtones—hardly even counterpoint—coming from a troubled childhood or a disordered libido. But where does by far the bulk, the whole ambulance load, of pain really come from? Isn’t the true poet or painter a seer? Isn’t he, actually, the only seer we have on earth? Most apparently not the scientist, most emphatically not the psychiatrist. (Surely the one and only great poet the pyschoanalysts have had was Freud himself; he had a little ear trouble of his own, no doubt, but who in his right mind could deny that an epic poet was at work?) Forgive me; I’m nearly finished with this. In a seer, what part of the human anatomy would necessarily be required to take the most abuse? The eyes, certainly. Please, dear general reader, as a last indulgence (if you’re still here), reread those two short passages from Kafka and Kierkegaard I started out with. Isn’t it clear? Don’t those cries come straight from the eyes? However contradictory the coroner’s report—whether he pronounces Consumption or Loneliness or Suicide to be the cause of death—isn’t it plain how the true artist-seer. actually dies? I say (and everything that follows in these pages all too possibly stands or falls on my being at least nearly right)—I say that the true artist-seer the heavenly fool who can and does produce beauty, is mainly dazzled to death by his own scruples, the blinding shapes and colors of his own sacred human conscience.

During a summer holiday in Roztok, near Prague, when he was seventeen, he would often accompany the innkeeper’s daughter out into the night air and read Nietszche to her by candlelight under an old oak. A youthful web of enthusiasm was spun between the two. In the autumn of 1900, he wrote in her album:

How many words the book contains!

They should remind! As if words could remind!

For words are poor mountain-climbers and poor miners.

They bring no treasures either from the mountain heights or mountain depths.

But there is a living thought that moved over everything worth remembering as it with a carressing hand…

Young Kafka was already deeply aware of how limited the quantity that language can carry. His skepticism that it cannot express the truth is manifested repeatedly in his work and in later diary entries. Words cannot “satisfy one’s own feeling.” Between “actual feeling and its comparative description an incoherent assumption is interposed like a board”—the assumption that in general our knowledge is deceptive. The fallaciousness and illusion of our cognition can be overcome only by the most extreme immobility. Action endangers the meager remnants of possible knowledge. Such lines recall the widsom of Chinese sages. Kafka reinforces the impression when he says: “Silence is an attribute of perfection.”

"Ah, this is marvelous!" said Lord Wen-hui. "Imagine skill reaching such heights!"

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond all skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the oxen itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now—now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moved where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.”

Rabbi Mikhal said:
“In every generation there are great zaddikim who shirk the work of salvation by devoting themselves to the Torah. As they fulfil the commandments, each one of them ponders on what holy place his soul came from, and is intent on having it go home to that place after its earthly journey is accomplished, to rejoice in the light of heavenly wisdom. That is why to such a man the things of this earth are as nothing. And though he is saddened by the misery among men and the bitter exile of Israel, this is not enough to move his heart to dare in prayer what must be dared. All his great longing is directed solely to his own homecoming, as it is written: ‘One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; and the earth abideth forever. The sun also riseth and the sun goeth down, and haseth to his place where he ariseth.’ Suns rise and go down and let the misery on earth endure.


Excerpt from the “Yehiel Mikhal of Zlotchov” chapter of Tales of the Hasidim by Martin Buber.

What happiness, to work from dawn to dusk for your family and for yourself, to build a roof over their heads, to till the soil to feed them, to create your own world, like Robinson Crusoe, in imitation of the Creator of the universe, and, as your own mother did, to give birth to yourself, time and again.

So many new thoughts come into your head when your hands are busy with hard physical work, when your mind has set you a task that can be achieved by physical effort and that brings its reward in joy and success, when for six hours on end you dig or hammer, scorched by the life-giving breath of the sky. And it isn’t a loss but a gain that these transient thoughts, intuitions, analogies are not put down on paper but forgotten. The town recluse whipping up his nerves and his imagination with strong black coffee and tobacco doesn’t know the strongest drug of all—good health and real necessity.

— Excerpt from Doctor Zhivago
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