Category Archives: Subjectivity


γένοι᾿, οἷος ἐσσὶ μαθών.
Become such as you are, having learned what that is.
(Pythian Odes 2, line 72)

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Edward Field

by Edward Field

Only the feathers floating around the hat
Showed that anything more spectacular had occurred
Than the usual drowning. The police preferred to ignore
The confusing aspects of the case,
And the witnesses ran off to a gang war.
So the report filed and forgotten in the archives read simply
“Drowned,” but it was wrong: Icarus
Had swum away, coming at last to the city
Where he rented a house and tended the garden.

“That nice Mr. Hicks” the neighbors called,
Never dreaming that the gray, respectable suit
Concealed arms that had controlled huge wings
Nor that those sad, defeated eyes had once
Compelled the sun. And had he told them
They would have answered with a shocked,
uncomprehending stare.
No, he could not disturb their neat front yards;
Yet all his books insisted that this was a horrible mistake:
What was he doing aging in a suburb?
Can the genius of the hero fall
To the middling stature of the merely talented?

And nightly Icarus probes his wound
And daily in his workshop, curtains carefully drawn,
Constructs small wings and tries to fly
To the lighting fixture on the ceiling:
Fails every time and hates himself for trying.
He had thought himself a hero, had acted heroically,
And dreamt of his fall, the tragic fall of the hero;
But now rides commuter trains,

Serves on various committees,
And wishes he had drowned.

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D. H. Lawrence

Self-Pity (1929)
by D. H. Lawrence

I never saw a wild thing
Sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

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Chad Gifford.

Don’t worry if you like it.  Decide whether it is good.

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Marian Wright Edelman

I’m not a big reblogger, but since she says it best…  here it is.

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…the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd…

Editorial: This colloquialism describes the rush actors get on stage. I love its poetry and the gist it evokes.

I am bowled over by the amount of energy we humans spend on our daily performances. We have so many roles to play: deli customer, brother-in-law, subway rider, employee, professor, sports fan, sonbrotherhusbandfather. It is endless. I find that in some instances I slide right into roles effortlessly—because they just are. Other times I need to pause and reset before the show can go on. Problems arise if I make the transition from role to role too quickly, for instance I can be too brusque when I go from coworker to adviser or from subway rider to father. But in all these roles, no matter how ordinary or extraordinary, if you can remember to breadth in, if you can remember to open your ears, the thrill of life (the smell… the roar…) is palpable.

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Zeitgeist as parent

Editorial: My six-year old daughter saw two turtles mating at a science museum and mentioned offhandedly that they were making baby turtles.  We have not talked with her all that much about procreation but the Zeitgeist does have a way of seeping everywhere—even into the minds of Kindergarteners.  My friend who was standing next to my daughter agreed that the turtles were probably making baby turtles and that was that.  Then just the other day my daughter and I were waiting on the curb at a crowded NYC bus stop when a double-long city bus pulled up with this exact Sundance advertisement plastered along its side.  If you have been in this spot before then you know what it feels like to have a huge, high-gloss advertisement like this one take over your entire field of vision.  As we shuffled towards the door of the bus and passed the shirtless gentleman with the high-tops and blindfold (sic) my daughter stopped dead in her tracks, gazing at the larger-than-life image.  When we finally boarded the bus a focused conversation began about who tends to like whom in this world.  My daughter reported that in her Kindergarten class “like” between her classmates went in four directions: Girls who like Girls (common); Boys who like Boys (also common); Girls who like Boys (somewhat common); Boys who like Girls (not common at all).  She then fell silent for a moment before making this point about the advertisement: Papa, the boys who like boys in that bed are going to need help from the girls to make babies.  

Thanks, Zeitgeist, for taking care of this one.  Persistence seems to be your best technique. 

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eMailing with NASA

Editorial: I recently had this eMail exchange with a Junior ESA/Hubble Public Information Officer from the NASA Education and Public Outreach Department.  This fine officer (‘OU’) has renewed my belief in spending tax dollars on space research if only to keep our infinitesimal brains slightly open to the notion that our dear earth is but a speck of dust floating across an infinite sea.  Go, NASA, go.
Dear OU,

I just read and thoroughly enjoyed “A Snowstorm of Distant Galaxies” at this website:

It says in the last line of the article that “the field of view of the image is about 3 arcminutes across”.  Can you give me some idea how wide or how narrow a field of view this might be when I’m looking up at the night sky?  For example, does this entire image occupy a tiny portion of the night sky?  To the naked eye does this snowstorm appear as many stars or perhaps less?  In short, I have no point of reference for what an arcminute might be.

Thank you,
New York City

Good question!

It’s pretty narrow – the full Moon is about 30 arcminutes across, so if you imagine a square about a tenth of the width and height of the Moon, that’s roughly what’s covered here. What you see in this picture is also very faint (hence the exposure times of 67 and 33 minutes through the different filters) – so it wouldn’t actually be visible as anything at all with the naked eye.

All the best,
München, Germany
Hello, OU,

Thank you so much for answering my question. It’s awesome to think that such a tiny piece of the sky can be so full and active and meaningful.

Can I pester you with one more question?  I’ve been looking at the image with my 6-year old daughter and we want to know how NASA even knows which tiny patch of blackness to study?  Meaning, if you are telling us that this little piece of the sky is too faint to see with the naked eye (such that it requires long exposure times), how do you know to point the cameras in that direction (versus all the other tiny black corners of the night sky)?  The size and scale seems overwhelming…

Thanks again,
New York City

To a large extent, it’s building on the work of other telescopes. The night sky is not a complete mystery – there are detailed maps of the sky that mean astronomers have a fair idea of what they’re likely to see when we point Hubble in any given direction. (Indeed – when astronomers apply for observing time, they have to say what they’re hoping to observe, and why).

There are a couple of special cases when Hubble has deliberately been pointed at the unknown, though. This picture, for example: (which is also 3 arcminutes across – it’s the standard size of image taken by Hubble’s main camera), was taken deliberately in a completely dark bit of sky with an extremely long exposure (about 280 hours), just to see what it would reveal. Because there was nothing bright there to outshine the very faint, distant galaxies, this spot has given us the deepest view of the cosmos ever.

You’re absolutely right about the sky being an overwhelming size – observing time on Hubble and other major observatories is hugely oversubscribed, and so has to be rationed as a result. There’s no way Hubble could ever study the whole sky in that level of detail.

All the best,
München, Germany

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Bob Dylan

Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king

from Sweetheart Like You (1983)

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Robert Frost

Neither Out Far Nor In Deep
by Robert Frost

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be—
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

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Kathleen Norris

In middle age we are apt to reach the horrifying conclusion that all sorrow, all pain, all passionate regret and loss and bitter disillusionment are self-made.

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David Foster Wallace

To be a mass tourist, for me, is to becmoe a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience, It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.
From “Consider the Lobster” in Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, Back Bay Books, New York, 2006.

Editorial: I read this essay whilst traveling in Venice during the New Year. Enough said.

in Venice

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David Foster Wallace

…and it’s now pretty much universally accepted that (a) meaning is inseparable from some act of interpretation and (b) an act of interpretation is always somewhat biased, i.e., informed by the interpreter’s particular ideology.
From “Authority and American Usage” in Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, Back Bay Books, New York, 2006.

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African Proverb

Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunters.

It may help to accept as axiomatic the notion that history is a worthwhile pursuit that produces a useful product. I can wrestle with the fairness of this statement later. For now I consider the idea that history is written by the victors. Other posts that dance around this topic include quotes from Orwell, Faulkner, and Kundera.
Do a nation and its writers create a history that justifies the rightness of its actions? Well, after smashing through Tunisia and creaming their enemies the Romans could (and did) portray the defeated Carthaginians as miserable barbarians. We don’t know how the poor (dead) historians in Carthage would have told the story. We see the same imbalance in the narratives about the colonization of the Americas, where European destruction and domination were repackaged as discovery. As we have been taught by Subaltern Studies this does not mean there are not alternative histories that undercut the dominant history, for example feminist history, class history, ethnic history, etc. The joy in looking at this closely is in being able to suss out the public and private mechanisms that serve the purpose of promoting the central history and burying the marginal histories: nationally standardized systems of education, production of state ceremonies and pastimes, state systems of accounting and archiving, and ginormous news agencies. Keep that in mind next time you look at a high school curriculum, watch a helicopter land at the White House, sit down for Thanksgiving, file your taxes, or read a newspaper. It is all quite deliberate!

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David Foster Wallace

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
From the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address (May 21, 2005) — Thanks, Em.
Update: They made it into a video.


Filed under Love, Quotes, Subjectivity, Sureness

Samuel Eliot Morison

America was discovered accidentally by a great seaman who was looking for something else; when discovered it was not wanted; and most of the exploration for the next fifty years was done in the hope of getting through or around it. America was named after a man who discovered no part of the New World. History is like that, very chancy.
The Oxford History of the American People, 1965, Chapter 2.

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Stanley Kunitz

Halley’s Comet
by Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006)

Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the storm tracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there’d be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground’s edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.
The whole family’s asleep now
except for me. They never heard me steal
into the stairwell hall and climb
the ladder to the fresh night air.

Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street —
that’s where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I’m the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.

Appears in the New Yorker, May 29, 2006.

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Jim Hightower

Like daddy, George W. was born on third, but thinks he hit a triple.
October 21, 1989

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Mahmoud Darwish

by Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008)

The difference between narcissus
and sunflower
is a point of view: the first
stares at his image in water
and says, there is no I but I
and the second looks
at the sun and says I am
what I worship.
And at night, difference shrinks
And interpretation widens.

Translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah. Appears in The New York Review of Books, Volume 55, Number 14 · September 25, 2008.

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Stanley Fish

We can still do all the things we have always done; we can still say that some things are true and others false, and believe it; we can still use words like better and worse and offer justifications for doing so. All we lose (if we have been persuaded by the deconstructive critique, that is) is a certain rationalist faith that there will someday be a final word, a last description that takes the accurate measure of everything. All that will have happened is that one account of what we know and how we know it — one epistemology — has been replaced by another, which means only that in the unlikely event you are asked “What’s your epistemology?” you’ll give a different answer than you would have given before. The world, and you, will go on pretty much in the same old way.
‘Think Again: French Theory in America’, The New York Times, April 6, 2008

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