Quotes: I Don’t Like You

Before there was the tweet, there was the epigram. The Roman poet Martial was an expert at this art form of highly-condensed snark. Here are a few of his best bits (my own translations):

I don’t like you, Sabidius, and I don’t know why.

All I know is: I don’t like you.

– Martial, Epigrams 1.32

 

You ask what I get from my farm in Nomentum, Linus?

This is what I get: not seeing you.

– Martial, Epigrams 2.38

 

Zoilus, why are you soiling the bathtub by washing your ass in it?

If you really want to make it filthy, go soak your head!

– Martial, Epigrams 2.42

 

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Quotes: People Will Fight for the Idea of Decency

This quote from Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade seems pretty apt for the covid-19 pandemic in the west:

“[Companies] started losing when they forgot how to be decent. People will fight for the idea of decency. They will fight for someone who treats them like people. They fight for beliefs far longer and harder than out of fear.”

– Dietz in Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade

So let’s treat each other as people. Because we’re in this together; health care experts don’t talk about herd immunity without reason.

Because we’re only in the beginning of it; even the most optimistic models don’t predict the peak to occur very soon.

And because we’re social critters, descendants of people who liked other people despite their origin or color or dance moves or whatnot. We’re here because we like doing things together. (And I realize how funny that may sound coming from a huge introvert such as myself, but there it is.) At each individual’s preferred amount of togetherness, but together nevertheless.

Hurley, Kameron. The Light Brigade. New York: Saga Press, 2019, p. 141-142.

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Quotes: She Gets to Screw It Up

After the release of Terminator: Dark Fate in November of 2019, Emmet Asher-Perrin wrote at Tor.com about the Terminator franchise. This section at the end describes perfectly why the original T (1984—oh gosh!) will always be my favorite of the series and why we need more (super)hero stories with women in the focus:

“The end of The Terminator is maybe more entrancing than any other finale in the franchise for that reason. It has more in common with a horror film than a sci-fi action flick. Sarah Connor, the final girl who has to make it through for so much more than the sake of her own life, crawling away from two glaring red eyes. Her leg is broken, she’s barely fast enough, but she pulls it all together to crush the T-800 into scrap parts. You can see the moment where the unflinching hero of Judgement Day is born, and it’s right when she says ‘You’re terminated, fucker.’ It only took a span of days to rip her normal, unremarkable life apart, but we get the chance to take the entire journey with her, to sit in her emotions and think about how it would feel. It’s just as fast as most ‘Chosen One’ narratives tend to be, but it doesn’t feel rushed because we are with her for every terrifying second of that ride.

“There are a few more heroes who get this treatment, but they are rarely women. Black Widow has a few muddled flashbacks in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Captain Marvel gets flickers of her past in formative moments. Wonder Woman gives us a brief introduction to Diana’s home and the women who raised her. Rey doesn’t get much time to wrestle with her budding Jedi abilities before heading off for training. We get brief hints of where these women came from, of how it feels to take everything onto their shoulders. But Sarah Connor gets to muddle through it. She gets to wear weird tie-dyed t-shirts and shiver when she’s cold and decide whether or not she can accept the idea of time travel and unborn sons and machines that will always find her no matter where she hides. She gets to present herself as wholly unqualified, and she gets to screw it up, and she still makes it out the other side to fight another day.” [original emphasis]

– Emmet Asher-Perrin

We’ve recently watched a few excellent crime procedurals (for example, Vera and The Fall, plus a new Finnish-Spanish production called Paratiisi) where the female protagonists were written with multiple characteristics that television’s stereotypical damaged males have (like a traumatic past, superficial sex / multiple throwaway partners, alcohol use, difficulty maintaining meaningful human relationships or, indeed, behaving professionally towards your colleagues, to mention a few).

Criticism of these kinds of women in stories is often framed in terms of likeability: you can’t like a woman who behaves in “un-feminine” ways. Well, assuming we’re not talking about comfort-watching or reading (which I’d allow some liberties to), do you have to? I’ve never met anyone who liked everyone they ever met.

I’d say it’s lazy storytelling at its core to plop in a feature of a given character or culture or setting without examining its purpose in the story. For example, while I appreciate the performances of Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in the Sherlock series by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, I detest the selfish, egotistical, arrogant, inconsiderate way Moffat and Gatiss have their Holmes behave. (There’s a reason we haven’t rewatched the series.) He if anyone is unlikeable, to put it mildly, but somehow people can only see his genius—even when the original Sherlock Holmes emphatically behaves with kindness.

And while it’s true that none of these “unlikeable” people would be easy to have as friends, it’s also true that none of them is without any redeeming qualities either. The point is, depicting one gender only in a certain light and cutting off other possibilities of being from them is overly limiting, because in the real world possibilities are nigh on infinite.

Depicting a variety of individuals is exactly what makes for instance heist stories like Ocean’s Eight or Jane Austen’s novels so enjoyable and delicious. Flipping details around, reversing patterns, defying expectations—these are exactly what make a story shine. Women are people and people come in a range of shapes, sizes, and mentalities. Just think of the range of abilities and body shapes Olympic athletes represent, for example.

Just like I do not want all men in my fiction to be cookie-cutter copies, I certainly don’t want all women in my fiction to be cast from the same mold. Expecting all or even most members of any group be an amorphous mass is really rather ill-advised, for it ruins many a good tale and taken to extremes would make stories untellable.

To re-phrase Asher-Perrin: what The Terminator really gets right is that Sarah Connor gets to feel her feels, to react, emote, and flail (like Ye Old Female Protagonist)—AND she gets to win the day.

Asher-Perrin, Emmet. “The First Terminator Movie Gave Sarah Connor One of the Most Compelling Origin Stories”. Tor.com, November 01, 2019.

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Quotes: When You Keep Harping on about It

You are pretty, Fabulla (we know!), and young (true enough!),

and rich (no one could say otherwise!).

But when you keep harping on about it,

you don’t seem pretty, or young, or rich.

– Martial, Epigrams 1.64

(My own translation)

This bit of grousing comes from the Roman poet Martial, who wrote in the first century CE, but it seems apt for today’s “influencer” culture, too. Some things never do change. Whether the lesson you take from that is “Rich young women will always be vain about themselves” or “Crabby old men will always complain about how young women present themselves” is up to you.

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Quotes: The Swan of Tuonela–You Must Have Seen That?

Like I mentioned, I’m reading all of the Hercule Poirot books in English for the first time. I’ve come across one reference to Finland already, but here’s another one:

“Affair with a dancer? But of course, my dear—he had an affair with Katrina. Katrina Samoushenka. You must have seen her? Oh, my dear—too delicious. Lovely technique. The Swan of Tuolela [sic]—you must have seen that?”

– Ambrose Vandel in The Labors of Hercules by Agatha Christie (original emphasis)

The Swan of Tuonela is a tone poem about the realm of the dead by composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), and part of his Lemminkäinen Suite of Four Legends from the Kalevala. Considering his international fame at the beginning of the 20th century, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that he was mentioned in a book published in the 1930s, but I confess I was a bit startled.

Christie, Agatha. The Labors of Hercules. New York, NY: Berkley Books, 1986 [orig. published 1939], p. 62.

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A Gift of Water

Sometimes the smallest gestures can mean the most, even to people who already have a lot. Here’s a story told about the Persian King Artaxerxes II and how he graciously received a humble gift.

Once when people were presenting him with various gifts along the road, a poor farmer who could come up with nothing else at the moment ran to the river, scooped up water in his hands, and offered it to the king. Artaxerxes was so delighted that he sent the man a golden cup and a thousand darics.

– Plutarch, Life of Artaxerxes 5.1

(My own translation.)

A daric was a golden coin worth about a month’s pay for a soldier or skilled artisan. A thousand darics was an unimaginable fortune to a poor farmer.

Like most such anecdotes, this story may or may not be true. Plutrach tells it as an illustration of Artaxerxes’ good-natured personality. Still, it makes a good illustration of the point that what matters isn’t always how much you can do for other people but your willingness to do what you can.

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Quotes: Because the World Is Yours and It Is up to You

I remember reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising pentalogy in a Finnish translation as a child. This summer I read them all in the original English. I didn’t remember much of them at all, just impressions, and was struck by how much more simplistic the story was than I’d thought.

Current Reading The Dark Is Rising

There was only one section in the whole 1,000+-word tome that the present-day me reponded to:

“We [Old Ones] have delivered you [humakind] from evil, but the evil that is inside men is at the last matter for men to control. The responsibility and the hope and the promise are in your hands—your hands and the hands of the children of all men on this earth. The future cannot blame the present, just as the present cannot blame the past. The hope is always there, always alive, but only your fierce caring can fan it into a fire to warm the world.

“[…] and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you. Now especially since man has the strength to destroy this world, it is the responsibility of man to keep it alive, in all its beauty and marvellous joy.”

– Merriman in Susan Cooper’s novel Silver on the Tree

The novel this quote comes from, Silver on the Tree, was originally published in 1977. I wonder whether World War II and/or the fear of atomic power might have been behind this paragraph? For me, however, it clearly applies to the current climate crisis.

Cooper, Susan. The Dark Is Rising: The Complete Sequence. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books, p. 1079.

Image by Eppu Jensen

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Alexander and the Sea Monsters

Sea monsters prevented Alexander from building Alexandria. He took a wooden container in which a glass box was inserted, and dived in it to the bottom of the sea. There he drew pictures of the devilish monsters he saw. He then had metal effigies of these animals made and set them up opposite the place where building was going on. When the monsters came out and saw the effigies, they fled. Alexander was thus able to complete the building of Alexandria.

– Ibn Khaldun, Kitab al-‘Ibar

Translated by Franz Rosenthal

This wild tale about the foundation of Alexandria is cited by the 14th-century North African historian Ibn Khaldun as an example of the ludicrous fictions that some earlier historians had filled their histories with but that had no place in the kind of scientific, rational history he set out to write.

The story as Ibn Khaldun relates it seem to go back to a legend in the Alexander Romance, a highly fictionalized account of Alexander the Great’s campaigns, about a large snake that frightened the workers who were building the city of Alexandria on the coast of Egypt until Alexander had the snake caught and killed. Over centuries of retelling, the hunt for one big snake turned into a struggle against terrible sea monsters.

The story of Alexander and the sea monsters is fiction, not history, as Ibn Khaldun rightly points out, but what a story it is! Wood and glass submarines! Ancient kaiju! Tactical deployment of art! How has no one made a movie out of this already?

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Quotes: Where Despotism Can Be Taken Pure

Abraham Lincoln, later the President of the U.S., is reported to have reacted to the white supremacist movement of 1840s thus:

“As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except Negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, exept Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” [original emphasis]

– Abraham Lincoln

Whoa, that’s pretty pointed. Granted, it’s decades since my U.S. history classes—not that we were taught that much to begin with, the focus was always on our fellow Nordics, Europe, and Russia—so it’s no wonder I can’t remember coming across this view of Lincoln’s.

Ghaemi, Nassir. A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. New York: Penguin, 2011, p. 71-72.

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Quotes: Society Works Better Than It Ever Had

Arkady Martine wrote at Tor.com on disaster stories and human behavior, noting a pattern on concentrating on the catastrophic and awful. That, however, has been proven a myth, at least initially:

“Humans do not, under the pressure of an emergency, socially collapse. Rather, they seem to display higher levels of social cohesion, despite what media or government agents might expect… or portray on TV. Humans, after the apocalypse, band together in collectives to help one another—and they do this spontaneously. […]

“Humans all over the world display this behavior after disasters. They display it consistently, no matter what kind of disaster is happening or what culture they come from.

“What really happens after an apocalypse? Society works better than it ever had, for a brief time.” [original emphases]

– Arkady Martine

Yay, us! We did evolve as and still are highly social creatures.

Now, how long this century’s phenomenal technological change takes to alter that and in which ways remains to be seen. I have high hopes of our curiosity and drive to engage with others, however. That may be a bit funny for a huge introvert to say, but there it is. 🙂

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