The Lesson of the Moth
i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires
why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense
plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves
and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself
—celebrated New York columnist Don Marquis, 1927
Whenever we read a story, our level of engagement with it is such that we “mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative,” according to lead researcher Nicole Speer. Our brains then interweave these newly encountered situations with knowledge and experience gleaned from our own lives, to create an organic mosaic of dynamic mental syntheses.
Reading a book carves brand new neural pathways into the ancient cortical bedrock of our brains. It transforms the way we see the world. Makes us, as Nicholas Carr puts it in his recent essay “The Dreams of Readers,” “more alert to the inner lives of others.” We become vampires without being bitten—in other words, more empathic. Books make us see in a way that casual immersion in the Internet, and the quicksilver virtual world it offers, doesn’t.— The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, Kevin Dutton
On a similar note, the well-worn stereotype of the brilliant “tortured artist” is also not without foundation. The painter Vincent van Gogh, the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, and the father of “game theory” (of which more later) John Nash were all psychotic. Coincidence? Not according to Szabolcs Kéri, a researcher at Semmelweis University in Budapest, who appears to have uncovered a genetic polymorphism associated with both schizophrenia and creativity. Kéri has found that people with two copies of a particular single-letter DNA variation in a gene called neuregulin 1, a variation that has been previously linked to psychosis—as well as poor memory and sensitivity to criticism—tend to score significantly higher on measures of creativity compared with individuals who have one or no copy of the variation. Those with one copy also tend to be more creative, on average, than those without.
Even depression has its advantages. Recent research suggests that despondency helps us think better—and contributes to increased attentiveness and enhanced problem-solving ability. In an ingenious experiment, Joe Forgas, professor of psychology at the University of New South Wales, placed a variety of trinkets, such as toy soldiers, plastic animals, and miniature cars, near the checkout counter of a small stationery store in Sydney. As shoppers made their way out, Forgas tested their memory, asking them to list as many of the items as possible. But there was a catch. On some days the weather was rainy, and Forgas piped Verdi’s Requiem through the store; on other days it was sunny, and shoppers were treated to a blast of Gilbert and Sullivan.
The results couldn’t have been clearer: shoppers in the “low mood” condition remembered nearly four times as many of the knickknacks. The rain made them sad, and their sadness made them pay more attention.— The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, Kevin Dutton
There were no troublesome memories in his childish sleep; no token came to him of his brave days at college, of the glittering years when he flustered the hearts of many girls. There were only the white, safe walls of his crib and Nana and a man who came to see him sometimes, and a great big orange ball that Nana pointed at just before his twilight bed hour and called “sun.” When the sun went his eyes were sleepy—there were no dreams, no dreams to haunt him.
The past—the wild charge at the head of his men up San Juan Hill; the first years of his marriage when he worked late into the summer dusk down in the busy city for young Hildegarde whom he loved; the days before that when he sat smoking far into the night in the gloomy old Button house on Monroe Street with his grandfather–all these had faded like unsubstantial dreams from his mind as though they had never been. He did not remember.
He did not remember clearly whether the milk was warm or cool at his last feeding or how the days passed—there was only his crib and Nana’s familiar presence. And then he remembered nothing. When he was hungry he cried—that was all. Through the noons and nights he breathed and over him there were soft mumblings and murmurings that he scarcely heard, and faintly differentiated smells, and light and darkness.
Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether from his mind.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, F. Scott Fitzgerald
UK WHITE TRASH WEDDING
It was easy to find—the Imperial Palace, a broad low-rise hotel set back from the road beyond a strip of lawn and a crammed car park. Doormen dressed like town criers were guiding the guests through the foyer, past the Beefeater Bar, and into an L-shaped anteroom where you could already hear a wall of sound, like the clamour of a schoolyard but on a lowered register—the contraltos of the women, the baritones of the men, in festive concord. Springtime, amatory union, massed revelry … With due allowance made for the imperfections of all those present, this wall of sound was a wall of love…
Now, Des had never been in a hotel before, and he was a little overawed, perhaps, by the way the place seemed to set itself the task of pampering his senses—the smiling, dipping waiters, the limitless refreshments, the soft music, the padded chairs in lines against the walls, the thick rayon drapes, the twinkling plastic chandeliers, the fitted nylon carpet (orange, with attractive sprinklings of yellow), and the brilliant company, all around, in their Whitsun best…
A waistcoated string quartet, up on the stage, rose as one and began playing the theme of The Godfather. Yes, there would be dancing, after the formalities, and then a great array of traditional Maltese dishes, artichoke hearts, beans with parsley, vegetable medleys, ricotta pie, nougat. But for now the fingerfood was reassuringly English—honest tavern fare…
And here [Lionel Asbo] was (in his one good suit, his white shirt, his cord-thin blue tie), scrubbed and shaven, with a stubborn tin of Cobra in his meaty hand…
“Can you all hear me, my friends?” A mutter of assent. “… Marl and me? What can I tell you. We been best mates,” he said scathingly (as if settling the hash of anyone who claimed otherwise), “since we was babies.” The womenfolk led a soft chuckle. “Sometimes, for a hoot, our mums’d take it in turns to feed us both at once. Didn’t you, Grace. Didn’t you, Auntie Mercy. That’s how close we were, me and Marl—he was the bloke on the next tit along.” More maternal mirth. “So the months passed. Then, when we stopped brawling over the next bottle of formula, well, we started putting ourselves about like normal little boys. All right. We was so-and-sos. There’s no other word for it. We were right so-and-sos. Scallywags, if you like.
“Bunking off day care and sneaking into X-films through the fire escapes.” Male laughter. “Ringing all the neighbours’ doorbells and giving them the finger. Aged two.” Female laughter. “And, when we was taller, pissing through they letterboxes.” General laughter. “We had a specialty, me and Marl. It started one Bonfire Night, when we was three, but soon we were doing it all year round. What you looked out for was a big heap of wet dogshit near a nice smart car. You’d ease a fat cherry bomb in under the slime, light the fuse, then nip round the corner.” Affectionate tut-tutting. “Bang! You come back, and it’s all over the paintwork. Every inch. Beautiful. Not so popular with the uh, the passers-by.” More affectionate tut-tutting.
“Nicking trikes, then bikes, then mopeds, then scooters. This is how you grow. Then proper motors, then vans, then lorries. We had the odd scrap, I don’t mind telling you, about whose turn it was to steer. See, we was only six or seven when we started.” A deep hum of admiration. “So one of us did the pedals and the other sat on his chest and did the wheel. If you were on top you’d go brake or power. And if you was underneath, and it was a pantechnicon, and Marl was all power power power power power, well, you just closed you eyes and hoped for the best…
“Then comes uh, adolescence. Shoplifting, credit cards, mug jobs, smash and grab. At school—suspension, expulsion, PRU offroll. Youth Court, Youth Custody, and the odd spot of Yoi. Then came maturity. Which in my case meant prison.” Some muffled snorts, a single guffaw. “Marl was craftier, and quicker on his toes. I was more headstrong. I wouldn’t learn. For me, for me that’s a point of principle. Never learn.”
—-Lionel Asbo : State of England, Martin Amis
PS I love how Amis has the band playing The Godfather theme. Perfection.