“A Vignette”

Here’s a creepy fragment by English ghost story writer M.R. James, published shortly after his death in 1936 — he’s recalling a memory from his childhood, when, alone one day in his father’s Suffolk rectory, he had looked out upon a wooden gate in a grove of trees:

As was but right it was shut, and nobody was upon the path that led to it or from it. But as I said a while ago, there was in it a square hole giving access to the fastening; and through that hole, I could see — and it struck like a blow on the diaphragm — something white or partly white. Now this I could not bear, and with an access of something like courage — only it was more like desperation, like determining that I must know the worst — I did steal down and, quite uselessly, of course, taking cover behind bushes as I went, I made progress until I was within range of the gate and the hole. Things were, alas! worse than I had feared; through that hole a face was looking my way. It was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral. Malevolent I thought and think it was; at any rate the eyes were large and open and fixed. It was pink and, I thought, hot, and just above the eyes the border of a white linen drapery hung down from the brows.

There is something horrifying in the sight of a face looking at one out of a frame as this did; more particularly if its gaze is unmistakably fixed upon you. Nor does it make the matter any better if the expression gives no clue to what is to come next. I said just now that I took this face to be malevolent, and so I did, but not in regard of any positive dislike or fierceness which it expressed. It was, indeed, quite without emotion: I was only conscious that I could see the whites of the eyes all round the pupil, and that, we know, has a glamour of madness about it. The immovable face was enough for me. I fled, but at what I thought must be a safe distance inside my own precincts I could not but halt and look back. There was no white thing framed in the hole of the gate, but there was a draped form shambling away among the trees.

“Do not press me with questions as to how I bore myself when it became necessary to face my family again. That I was upset by something I had seen must have been pretty clear, but I am very sure that I fought off all attempts to describe it. Why I make a lame effort to do it now I cannot very well explain: it undoubtedly has had some formidable power of clinging through many years to my imagination. I feel that even now I should be circumspect in passing that Plantation gate; and every now and again the query haunts me: Are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once on a time anybody could see and speak to as they went about on their daily occasions, whereas now only at rare intervals in a series of years does one cross their paths and become aware of them; and perhaps that is just as well for the peace of mind of simple people.”

In a Word

n. an introduction to some branch of learning

In Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), two publishers propose a School of Comparative Irrelevance that teaches “useless or impossible courses,” such as Urban Planning for Gypsies, Aztec Equitation, and Potio-section.

‘Potio-section, as everybody knows, of course, is the art of slicing soup. No, no,’ he said to Diotallevi. ‘It’s not a department, it’s a subject, like Mechanical Avunculogratulation or Pylocatabasis. They all fall under the heading of Tetrapyloctomy.’

‘What’s tetra …?’ I asked.

‘The art of splitting a hair four ways. This is the department of useless techniques. Mechanical Avunculogratulation, for example, is how to build machines for greeting uncles. We’re not sure, though, if Pylocatabasis belongs, since it’s the art of being saved by a hair. Somehow that doesn’t seem completely useless.’

Overall, the school’s aim is “to turn out scholars capable of endlessly increasing the number of unnecessary subjects.” “The Tetrapyloctomy department has a preparatory function; its purpose is to inculcate a sense of irrelevance. Another important department is Adynata, or Impossibilia. Like Urban Planning for Gypsies. The essence of the discipline is the comprehension of the underlying reasons for a thing’s absurdity. We have courses in Morse syntax, the history of antarctic agriculture, the history of Easter Island painting, contemporary Sumerian literature, Montessori grading, Assyrio-Babylonian philately, the technology of the wheel in pre-Columbian empires, and the phonetics of the silent film.”

(Thanks, Macari.)

“She Was as Cute as a Washtub”

Raymond Chandler similes:

“He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”
“She looked almost as hard to get as a haircut.”
“The smell of old dust hung in the air as flat and stale as a football interview.”
“Her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust.”
“This car sticks out like spats at an Iowa picnic.”
“I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split.”
“A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp, like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock.”
“Then she straightened the bills out on the desk and put one on top of the other and pushed them across. Very slowly, very sadly, as if she was drowning a favorite kitten.”

“If you use similes,” he once suggested, “try and make them both extravagant and original.”


la rochefoucauld

Maxims of La Rochefoucauld:

  • “Jealousy is in some sort rational and just; since it only aims at the Preservation of a Good which belongs, or which we think belongs, to us: Whereas Envy is a Frenzy that cannot bear the Good of others.”
  • “Good Sense should be the Test of all Rules, both ancient and modern; whatever is incompatible therewith is false.”
  • “Avarice is more opposite to Economy than Liberality.”
  • “We ought to be able to answer for our Fortune, to be able to answer for what we shall do.”
  • “The most violent Passions have their Intermissions; Vanity only gives us no Respite.”
  • “‘Tis more difficult to conceal the Sensations we have, than to feign those we have not.”
  • “We should have but little Pleasure were we never to flatter ourselves.”
  • “We love much better those, who endeavour to imitate us, than those who strive to equal us. For Imitation is a Sign of Esteem, but Competition of Envy.”
  • “Whatever Difference may appear in Men’s Fortunes, there is nevertheless a certain Compensation of Good and Ill that makes all equal.”

And “The common Foible of old People who have been handsome, is to forget that they are no longer so.”

“Money Is Not Advice”

Proverbs of Latin America:

  • Of the doctor, the poet, and the fool we all have a small portion. (Mexico)
  • Each of us bears his friend and his enemy within himself. (Costa Rica)
  • The mother-in-law does not remember she was a daughter-in-law. (Venezuela)
  • Halfway is 12 miles when you have 14 miles to go. (Panama)
  • Diligence is the mother of good fortune. (Peru)
  • Face to face respect appears. (Ecuador)
  • You may believe every good report of a grateful man. (Guatemala)
  • Many go for wool and come back shorn themselves. (Dominican Republic)
  • He who marries prudence is the brother-in-law of peace. (Bolivia)
  • Nothing is so burdensome as a secret. (Colombia)
  • The vulgar keep no account of your hits, but of your misses. (Paraguay)
  • Grief shared is half grief; joy shared is double joy. (Honduras)
  • A “no” in time is better than a late “yes.” (Uruguay)
  • When you mourn, you cannot sing; when you sing, you cannot mourn. (Argentina)

(From Guy Zona, Eyes That See Do Not Grow Old, 1996.)


In the spring of 1908, Max Beerbohm and Edmund Gosse sent a message back and forth, each adding a line until they had composed a sonnet to Henry James, whose incomprehensible novels they both admired. The odd-numbered lines are Beerbohm’s, the even-numbered Gosse’s:

To Henry James

Say, indefatigable alchemist,
Melts not the very moral of your scene,
Curls it not off in vapour from between
Those lips that labour with conspicuous twist?

Your fine eyes, blurred like arc-lamps in a mist
Immensely glare, yet glimmering intervene,
So that your May-Be and your Might-Have-Been
Leave us still plunging for the genuine gist.

How different from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, —
As clear as water and as smooth as oil,
And no jot knowing of what Maisie knew!
Flushed with the sunset air of roseate Rye

You stand, marmoreal darling of the Few,
Lord of the troubled speech and single Eye.

“The sonnet was never shown to James himself,” writes J.G. Riewald in Max Beerbohm’s Mischievous Wit, “because, according to Max, ‘he would be too complex to understand our special brand of sincere reverence.'”

Will Power

If you cannot understand my argument, and declare ‘It’s Greek to me’, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise — why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then — to give the devil his due — if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then — by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness’ sake! what the dickens! but me no buts — it is all one to me for you are quoting Shakespeare.

— Bernard Levin, Enthusiasms, 1983

In a Word


n. writing inspired by illness

After a shining start, Swiss philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel lost his patronage and his health, leaving him remembered largely for a private journal that became his only reality, the symptom and source of his illness. In the end it ran to 12 compulsively written volumes totaling 6 million words, a real-time description of its writer’s inner life:

  • “I can find no words for what I feel. My consciousness is withdrawn into itself; I hear my heart beating, and my life passing. It seems to me that I have become a statue on the banks of the river of time, that I am the spectator of some mystery, and shall issue from it old, or no longer capable of age.”
  • “Am I not more attached to the ennuis I know, than in love with pleasures unknown to me?”
  • “At bottom there is but one subject of study: the forms and metamorphoses of mind. All other subjects may be reduced to this study.”

He was slowly suffocating as he wrote his final entries — the last, written on April 19, 1881, reads, “A terrible sense of oppression. My flesh and my heart fail me. Que vivre est difficile, ô mon coeur fatigué!

“We think our protagonist was virtually unique in the degree to which he turned his diary into a fetishistic addiction, not so different from the substance addiction common in his culture,” write George S. Rousseau and Caroline Warman. “His diary was his fix. Boundaries between himself and his diary are nonexistent. And his larger definition of life, or living, was so firmly fused with the diary that he could not conceive of life, or living, apart from it.”

(George S. Rousseau and Caroline Warman, “Writing as Pathology, Poison, or Cure: Henri-Frédéric Amiel’s Journal intime,” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 3:3 [2002], 229–262.)

“The Black Patch”

Submitted by Randolph Hartley for Life magazine’s 1915 short story contest:

I wear a black patch over my left eye. It has aroused the curiosity of many; no one has suspected the horror that it hides.

Twenty years ago Bernard Vroom and I, fellow students at the University of Jena, were devotees at the feet of Professor Malhausen, the foremost optical surgeon of his time. Living, working, dreaming together, Vroom and I became almost as one intelligence in our passionate study of the anatomy of the eye. Vroom it was who advanced the theory that a living eye-ball might be transferred from the head of one man to the head of another. It was I who suggested, and arranged for, the operation, performed by Professor Malhausen, through which Vroom’s left eye became mine and my left eye became Vroom’s. Professor Malhausen’s monograph, published shortly afterward, describes the delicate operation in detail. The ultimate effects of the operation are my own story.

Very distinctly do I remember the final struggle for breath when the anesthetic was administered; and quite as vividly do I recall my return to consciousness, in a hospital cot, weakened by a six weeks’ illness with brain fever, which had followed the operation. Slowly but clearly my mind advanced through the process of self-identification, and memory brought me to the moment of my last conscious thought. With a mingled feeling of curiosity and dread I opened my eyes.

I opened my eyes and beheld two distinct and strongly contrasting scenes. One, which was visible most clearly when I employed only my right eye, was the bare hospital room in which I lay. The other, distinct to the left eye alone, was the deck of a ship, a stretch of blue sea, and in the distance a low, tropical coast that was to me totally unfamiliar.

Perplexed and vaguely afraid, I begged the nurse to send at once for Vroom. She explained gently that Vroom had recovered quickly, and that, although deeply distressed over leaving me, he had sailed for Egypt, a fortnight since, on a scientific mission. In a flash the truth came to me overwhelmingly. The severing of the optic nerve had not destroyed the sympathy between Vroom’s two eyes. With Vroom’s left eye, now physically mine, I was beholding that which Vroom beheld with his right. The magnitude of the discovery and its potentialities stunned me. I dared not tell Professor Malhausen for fear of being thought insane. For the same reason I have held the secret until now.

On the second day of double-vision my left eye revealed a gorgeous picture of the port and city of Alexandria — and of a woman. Evidently she and Vroom were standing close together at the ship’s rail. I saw on her face an expression that I had never seen on woman’s before. I thrilled with exultation. Then suddenly I went cold. The look was for Vroom, not for me. I had found a love that was not mine, a love to which every atom of my being responded, and it was to be my portion to behold on my loved one’s face, by day and by night, the manifestation of her love for another man.

From that moment on I lived in the world that was revealed to me by my left eye. My right was employed only when I set down in my diary the impressions and experiences of this other life. The record was chiefly of the woman, whose name I never knew. The final entry, unfinished, describes the evidences that I saw of her marriage to Vroom in the English Garrison Church at Cairo. I could write no more. A jealousy so sane and so well founded, so amply fed by new fuel every new moment that it was the acme of torture, possessed me. I was truly insane, but with a true vision, and to me was given the weapon of extreme cunning that insanity provides. I convinced Professor Malhausen that my left eye was sightless, and by simulating calmness and strength I gained my discharge from the hospital. The next day I sailed from Bremen for Port Said.

Upon reaching Cairo I had, naturally, no difficulty in finding my way through the already familiar streets, to the Eden Palace Hotel, and to the very door of Vroom’s apartment, overlooking the Esbekieh Gardens. Without plan, save for the instant sight of her I loved, I opened the door. Vroom stood there facing me, a revolver in his hand.

“You did not consider,” he said calmly, “that my left eye also is sympathetic; that I have followed every movement of yours; that I am acquainted with your errand through the entries in your diary, which I read line by line as you wrote. You shall not see her. I have sent her far away.”

I rushed upon him in a frenzy. His revolver clicked but missed fire. I bore him backward over a divan, my hands at his throat. His eyes grew big as I strangled him. And into my left eye came a vision of my own face, as Vroom saw it, distorted by the lust of murder. He died with that picture fixed in his own eye, and upon the retina of the eye that once was his, and is now mine, that fearful picture of my face was fixed, to remain until my death.

I wear a black patch over my left eye. I dare not look upon the horror that it hides.

A Private World


As a boy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s son Hartley invented an imaginary world called Ejuxria, with a detailed history and geography that he described to his brother Derwent as he created it. Derwent later recalled:

The Ejuxrian world presented a complete analogon to the world of fact, so far as it was known to Hartley, complete in all its parts; furnishing a theatre and scene of action, with dramatis personae and machinery, in which, day after day, for the space of long years, he went on evolving the complicated drama of existence. There were many nations, continental and insular, each with its separate history, civil, ecclesiastical, and literary, its forms of religion and government, and specific national character. When at length a sense of unreality was forced upon him, and he felt himself obliged to account for his knowledge of, and connection with, this distant land, he had a story … of a great bird, by which he was transported to and fro. But he recurred to these explanations with great reluctance and got rid of them as quickly as possible. Once I asked him how it came that his absence on these occasions was not observed; — but he was angry and mortified, and I never repeated the experiment.

Robert Southey and Hartley’s mother saw to it that “a spot of waste ground was appropriated for Hartley’s use: this was divided into kingdoms and subdivided into provinces, each of the former being assigned to one of his playmates. A canal was to run through the whole, upon which ships were to be built. … War was to be declared and battles fought between the sovereign powers … [Hartley] had a scheme for training cats and even rats for various offices and labours, civil and military. … But how he talked! and how his hearers, one of them a playfellow from the town, the Sancho Panza of our Don Quixote, listened and believed!”

Derwent believed that Hartley kept elaborating Ejuxria even in adulthood. In Private Lives of the Ancient Mariner, Molly Lefebure speculates that Hartley’s great bird may eventually have evolved into an albatross in Samuel Coleridge’s mind. “Birds of such omen do not come into one’s life simply to be forgotten,” she writes. “They perch on the masthead of shrouded memory to swoop down into close view at some mysteriously given moment.”