Quotes of Note

“I’m now 81 and I think the happiest years started between sixty and seventy. Apart from illness and pain with my back and a few things like that, I am much happier now. For one thing, I know how to handle life. Up till the time I was sixty I was never very capable of saying no, of really saying this is the way I do it and being absolutely firm. . . Now I do.” – Muriel Spark, author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

“Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely outnumbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places.

“Even more astounding is our statistical improbability in physical terms. The normal, predictable state of matter throughout the universe is randomness, a relaxed sort of equilibrium, with atoms and their particles scattered around in an amorphous muddle. We, in brilliant contrast, are completely organized structures, squirming with information at every covalent bond. We make our living by catching electrons at the moment of their excitement by solar photons, swiping the energy released at the instant of each jump and storing it up in intricate loops for ourselves. We violate probability, by our nature. To be able to do this systematically, and in such wild varieties of form, from viruses to whales, is extremely unlikely; to have sustained the effort successfully for the several billion years of our existence, without drifting back into randomness, was nearly a mathematical impossibility.

“Add to this the biological improbability that makes each member of our own species unique. Everyone is one in 3 billion at the moment, which describes the odds. Each of us is a self-contained, free-standing individual, labeled by specific protein configurations at the surfaces of cells, identifiable by whorls of fingertip skin, maybe even by special medleys of fragrance. You’d think we’d never stop dancing.” – Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974)

“To such degree, it seems, is truth hedged about with difficulty and hard to capture by research, since those who come after the events in question find that lapse of time is an obstacle to their proper perception of them; while the research of their contemporaries into men’s deeds and lives, partly through envious hatred and partly through fawning flattery, defiles and distorts the truth.” – Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Greecians and Romans

“No one making Casablanca thought they were making a great movie. It was simply another Warner Bros. release. It was an ‘A-list picture, to be sure (Bogart, Bergman, and Paul Henreid were stars, and no better cast of supporting actors could have been assembled on the Warner lot than Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Claude Rains, and Dooley Wilson). But it was made on a tight budget and released with small expectations. Everyone involved in the film had been and would be in dozens of other films made under similar circumstances, and the greatness of Casablanca was largely the result of happy chance. The screenplay was adapted from a play of no great consequence; memoirs tell of scraps of dialogue jotted down and rushed over to the set. What must have helped is that the characters were firmly established in the minds of the writers, and they were characters so close to the screen personas of the actors that it was hard to write dialogue in the wrong tone . . .

“What is intriguing is that none of the major characters are bad. Some are cynical, some lie, some kill, but all are redeemed. If you think it was easy for Rick to renounce his love for Ilsa—to place a higher value on Laszlo’s fight against Nazism—remember E. M. Forster’s comment ‘If I were forced to choose between my country and my friend, I hope I would be brave enough to choose my friend.’ From a modern perspective, the film reveals interesting assumptions. Ilsa Lund’s role is basically that of a lover and helpmate to a great man; the movie’s real question is, which great man should she be sleeping with? There is actually no reason why Laszlo cannot get on the plane alone, leaving Ilsa in Casablanca with Rick, and indeed that is one of the endings that were briefly considered. But that would be all wrong. The ‘happy’ ending would be tarnished by self-interest, while the ending we have allows Rick to be larger, to approach nobility (‘It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.’). And it allows us, vicariously experiencing all of these things in the theater, to warm in the glow of his heroism. In her close-ups during this scene, Bergman’s face reflects confusing emotions. And well she might have been confused, since neither she nor anyone else on the film knew for sure until the final day who would get on the plane. Bergman played the whole movie without knowing how it would end, and this had the subtle effect of making all of her scenes more emotionally convincing; she could not tilt in the direction she knew the wind was blowing.” – Roger Ebert, The Great Movies

“Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to teach a kindergarten or first-grade class. Many of these children are natural-born scientists—although heavy on the wonder side and light on skepticism. They’re curious, intellectually vigorous. Provocative and insightful questions bubble out of them. They exhibit enormous enthusiasm. I’m asked follow-up questions. They’ve never heard of the notion of a ‘dumb question.’ But when I talk to high school seniors, I find something different. They memorize ‘facts.’ By and large, though, the joy of discovery, the life behind those facts, has gone out of them. They’ve lost much of the wonder, and gained very little skepticism. They’re worried about asking ‘dumb’ questions; they’re willing to accept inadequate answers; they don’t pose follow-up questions; the room is awash with sidelong glances to judge, second-by-second, the approval of their peers. They come to class with their questions written out on pieces of paper, which they surreptitiously examine, waiting their turn and oblivious of whatever discussion their peers are at this moment engaged in. Something has happened between first and twelfth grade, and it’s not just puberty. I’d guess that it’s partly peer pressure not to excel (except in sports); partly that the society teaches short-term gratification; partly the impression that science or mathematics won’t buy you a sports car; partly that so little is expected of students; and partly that there are few rewards or role models for intelligent discussion of science and technology—or even for learning for its own sake. Those few who remain interested are vilified as ‘nerds’ or ‘geeks’ or ‘grinds.” – Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

“Hugo Black, in his youth, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan; he later became a Supreme Court Justice and was one of the leaders in the historic Supreme Court Decisions, partly based on the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, that affirmed the civil rights of all Americans: It was said that when he was a young man, he dressed up in white robes and scared black folks; when he got older, he dressed up in black robes and scared white folks.” – Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

 

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