A discovery must be, by definition, at variance with existing knowledge. During my lifetime, I made two. Both were rejected offhand by the popes of the field. Had I predicted these discoveries in my applications, and had those authorities been my judges, it is evident what their decisions would have been.
Every day is like a kid's drawing, offered to you with a strange mix of ceremoniousness and offhand disregard, yours for the keeping. Some of the days are rich and complicated, others inscrutable, others little more than a stray gray mark on a ragged page. Some you manage to hang on to, though your reasons for doing so are often hard to fathom. But most of them you just ball up and throw away.
Small groups have always been the locus of change. What they do, in a sometimes offhand way, is constellate new cultural forms and give birth to the unexpected. Sometimes the talk is the thing, sometimes the feeling. When we risk talking about something we really care about it's infectious. Like any good infection, such talk can produce heat, a fever of intellectual excitement.
We both grew so used to each other, so comfortable with the naturalness and ease of our friendship, that we became sloppy about keeping our relationship a secret. It was not that we were physically demonstrative or obviously in love, more that it had become impossible for us to hide our close involvement. We had gradually acquired the unmistakable air of old-love: finishing each other's sentences and speaking to each other with an offhand, presuming intimacy that was eventually noticed.
With respect to duels, indeed, I have my own ideas. Few things in this so surprising world strike me with more surprise. Two little visual spectra of men, hovering with insecure enough cohesion in the midst of the unfathomable, and to dissolve therein, at any rate, very soon, make pause at the distance of twelve paces asunder; whirl around, and simultaneously by the cunningest mechanism, explode one another into dissolution; and, offhand, become air, and non-extant--the little spitfires!
...And another item from the growing file of people who voluntarily wear dunce caps... You'll be talking cordially to someone and make an offhand reference, 'I recently read where--' and they'll cut you off and say, 'Oh, I don't read'... This is a tragedy on so many different levels. First, because they don't read, they don't know enough to keep it to themselves. Next, and this is the most amazing part, they use a demeaning tone like I'm the stupid one for wasting time with books.
And another item from the growing file of people who voluntarily wear dunce caps... You'll be talking cordially to someone and make an offhand reference, 'I recently read where-' and they'll cut you off and say, 'Oh, I don't read'... This is a tragedy on so many different levels. First, because they don't read, they don't know enough to keep it to themselves. Next, and this is the most amazing part, they use a demeaning tone like I'm the stupid one for wasting time with books.
A gathering of Democrats is more sweaty, disorderly, offhand, and rowdy than a gathering of Republicans; it is also likely to be more cheerful, imaginative, tolerant of dissent, and skillful at the game of give-and-take. A gathering of Republicans is more respectable, sober, purposeful, and businesslike than a gathering of Democrats; it is also likely to be more self-righteous, pompous, cut-and-dried, and just plain boring.
Great institutions have leaders who are proud of what they do, and who engage with everyone who makes up those institutions, so each person understands their role. But our jailers are generally granted near-total anonymity, like the cartoon executioner who wears a hood to conceal his identity. What is the point, what is the reason, to lock people away for years, when it seems to mean so very little, even to the jailers who hold the key? How can a prisoner understand their punishment to have been worthwhile to anyone, when it's dealt in a way so offhand and indifferent?
The world of the Takers is one vast prison, and except for a handful of Leavers scattered across the world, the entire human race is now inside that prison. [... ] Naturally a well-run prison must have a prison industry. I'm sure you see why." "Well... it helps to keep the inmates busy, I suppose. Takes their minds off the boredom and futility of their lives." "Yes. Can you name yours?" "Our prison industry? Not offhand. I suppose it's obvious." "Quite obvious, I would say." I gave it some thought. "Consuming the world." Ishmael nodded. "Got it on the first try.
But all this was beside the point. What scared Amy was the mere fact of what looked inescapably like recreational malevolence. The poem had been written by an adult, not some teen with an unfinished brain. Whoever wrote the line bootlicker, sycophant, toady intended damage, understood how Carla would feel, how anybody would feel, being called such names. The line was playful, offhand, the poem itself a smug, imperious cat stretch. The writer was having fun. Amy had been comfortable in the same room with someone whose idea of fun this was.
But there is another possible attitude towards the records of the past, and I have never been able to understand why it has not been more often adopted. To put it in its curtest form, my proposal is this: That we should not read historians, but history. Let us read the actual text of the times. Let us, for a year, or a month, or a fortnight, refuse to read anything about Oliver Cromwell except what was written while he was alive. There is plenty of material; from my own memory (which is all I have to rely on in the place where I write) I could mention offhand many long and famous efforts of English literature that cover the period. Clarendon's History, Evelyn's Diary, the Life of Colonel Hutchinson. Above all let us read all Cromwell's own letters and speeches, as Carlyle published them. But before we read them let us carefully paste pieces of stamp-paper over every sentence written by Carlyle. Let us blot out in every memoir every critical note and every modern paragraph. For a time let us cease altogether to read the living men on their dead topics. Let us read only the dead men on their living topics.
Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused-in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened-by the recurrence of Christmas. There are people who will tell you that Christmas is not to them what it used to be; that each succeeding Christmas has found some cherished hope, or happy prospect, of the year before, dimmed or passed away; that the present only serves to remind them of reduced circumstances and straitened incomes-of the feasts they once bestowed on hollow friends, and of the cold looks that meet them now, in adversity and misfortune. Never heed such dismal reminiscences. There are few men who have lived long enough in the world who cannot call up such thoughts any day of the year. Then do not select the merriest of the three hundred and sixty-five for your doleful recollections, but draw your chair nearer the blazing fire-fill the glass and send round the song-and if your room be smaller than it was a dozen years ago, or if your glass be filled with reeking punch, instead of sparkling wine, put a good face on the matter, and empty it offhand, and fill another, and troll off the old ditty you used to sing, and thank God it's no worse.
Sooner or later, all talk among foreigners in Pyongyang turns to one imponderable subject. Do the locals really believe what they are told, and do they truly revere Fat Man and Little Boy? I have been a visiting writer in several authoritarian and totalitarian states, and usually the question answers itself. Someone in a cafe makes an offhand remark. A piece of ironic graffiti is scrawled in the men's room. Some group at the university issues some improvised leaflet. The glacier begins to melt; a joke makes the rounds and the apparently immovable regime suddenly looks vulnerable and absurd. But it's almost impossible to convey the extent to which North Korea just isn't like that. South Koreans who met with long-lost family members after the June rapprochement were thunderstruck at the way their shabby and thin northern relatives extolled Fat Man and Little Boy. Of course, they had been handpicked, but they stuck to their line. There's a possible reason for the existence of this level of denial, which is backed up by an indescribable degree of surveillance and indoctrination. A North Korean citizen who decided that it was all a lie and a waste would have to face the fact that his life had been a lie and a waste also. The scenes of hysterical grief when Fat Man died were not all feigned; there might be a collective nervous breakdown if it was suddenly announced that the Great Leader had been a verbose and arrogant fraud. Picture, if you will, the abrupt deprogramming of more than 20 million Moonies or Jonestowners, who are suddenly informed that it was all a cruel joke and there's no longer anybody to tell them what to do. There wouldn't be enough Kool-Aid to go round. I often wondered how my guides kept straight faces. The streetlights are turned out all over Pyongyang-which is the most favored city in the country-every night. And the most prominent building on the skyline, in a town committed to hysterical architectural excess, is the Ryugyong Hotel. It's 105 floors high, and from a distance looks like a grotesquely enlarged version of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco (or like a vast and cumbersome missile on a launchpad). The crane at its summit hasn't moved in years; it's a grandiose and incomplete ruin in the making. 'Under construction, ' say the guides without a trace of irony. I suppose they just keep two sets of mental books and live with the contradiction for now.
Marginalia Sometimes the notes are ferocious, skirmishes against the author raging along the borders of every page in tiny black script. If I could just get my hands on you, Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien, they seem to say, I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head. Other comments are more offhand, dismissive - Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" - that kind of thing. I remember once looking up from my reading, my thumb as a bookmark, trying to imagine what the person must look like who wrote "Don't be a ninny" alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson. Students are more modest needing to leave only their splayed footprints along the shore of the page. One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's. Another notes the presence of "Irony" fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal. Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers, Hands cupped around their mouths. Absolutely, " they shout to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin. Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!" Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points rain down along the sidelines. And if you have managed to graduate from college without ever having written "Man vs. Nature" in a margin, perhaps now is the time to take one step forward. We have all seized the white perimeter as our own and reached for a pen if only to show we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; we pressed a thought into the wayside, planted an impression along the verge. Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria jotted along the borders of the Gospels brief asides about the pains of copying, a bird singing near their window, or the sunlight that illuminated their page- anonymous men catching a ride into the future on a vessel more lasting than themselves. And you have not read Joshua Reynolds, they say, until you have read him enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling. Yet the one I think of most often, the one that dangles from me like a locket, was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye I borrowed from the local library one slow, hot summer. I was just beginning high school then, reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room, and I cannot tell you how vastly my loneliness was deepened, how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed, when I found on one page A few greasy looking smears and next to them, written in soft pencil- by a beautiful girl, I could tell, whom I would never meet- Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love.