Long-time readers (!) of this blog might recall that back in 2011 I tried to work on memorizing some prose passages. I meant to start with Cheever’s opening paragraph in “The Death of Justina”. Today is the first day I’ve been able to recite it in full from memory. Here, to practice, though you’ll have to trust I’m neither peeking nor copying and pasting:
So help me God it gets more and more preposterous, it corresponds less and less to what I remember and what I expect, as if the force of life were centrifugal and threw one further and further away from one’s purest memories and ambitions, and I can barely recall the old house where I was raised, where in midwinter Parma violets bloomed in a cold frame near the kitchen door, and down the long corridor, past the seven views of Rome—up two steps and down three—one entered the library, where all the books were in order, the lamps were bright, where there was a fire and a dozen bottles of good bourbon locked in a cabinet with a veneer like tortoise shell whose silver key my father wore on his watch chain. Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing. We admire decency and we despise death, but even the mountains seem to shift in the space of a night, and perhaps the exhibitionist at the corner of Chestnut and Elm streets is more significant than the lovely woman with a bar of sunlight in her hair, putting a fresh piece of cuttlebone in the nightingale’s cage. Just let me give you one example of chaos and if you disbelieve me look honestly into your own past and see if you can’t find a comparable experience.
The idea, I guess, is to know certain writing by heart, in all that this idiom connotes. I’m in love with the way this paragraph moves. I love its leaps and grounding returns. Maybe I’ll glean something from it subconsciously, but mostly I just like having it close when I need it.
Next up for memorization is this gem from Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”:
Of course the activists—not those whose thinking had become rigid, but those whose approach to revolution was imaginatively anarchic—had long ago grasped the reality which still eluded the press: we were seeing something important. We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum. Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum, no longer pretend that the society’s atomization could be reversed. This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.
They feed back exactly what is given them. Because they do not believe in words—words are for “typeheads,” Chester Anderson tells them, and a thought which needs words is just one more of those ego trips—their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.” They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words.
339 words to Cheever’s 280. See you in 2018.