Beautiful Language & Thought

I heard in an interview that Maria Popova (of marks underlined passages in the books she’s reading with a “BL” to remember instances of “beautiful language.”

(She talks a bit about her relationship with marginalia in an interview with On Being. It’s really nice.)

Hearing this got me thinking about how and why I mark up my books, and what my note-taking system really is. (It’s always been a bit chaotic and messy.) But mainly it got me noticing when I notice (and choose to underline) what I feel are really beautiful or striking passages as I’m reading.

For example, when Shevek and his friends are sitting on a hilltop, talking about what Urras might really be like (versus what they’ve been told / led to believe), Le Guin mentions that three days earlier in a history class they had all seen an image of “iridescent jewels in the smooth hollow of women’s oiled, brown bodies” (referring to the exotic luxuries / decadence of Urras). Which I simply found both linguistically and imagically luscious. :yum:

What did Roland Barthes call it? Le Plaisir du Texte [remembering back to my Comp Lit days.]

Later in the same section, when the “moon” (i.e., Urras) rises on the horizon, Le Guin writes:

The sister planet shone down upon them, serene and brilliant, a beautiful example of the improbability of the real." [p. 45 – HPMC, 2014]

And I just loved that line: “the improbability of the real.” More than just linguistically or imagaically beautiful, it’s also intriguing and beautiful to contemplate.

Here’s another passage I felt was both memorable and important:

You shall not go down twice to the same river, nor can you go home again. That he knew; indeed it was the basis of his view of the world. Yet from that acceptance of transience he evolved his vast theory, wherein what is most changeable is shown to be fullest of eternity, and your relationship to the river, and the river’s relationship to you and to itself, turns out to be at once more complex and more reassuring than a mere lack of identify. You can go home again, the General Temporal Theory asserts, so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been. [p. 54 – HPMC, 2014]

Anyways… thought I’d start this thread as a place to collect beautiful lines—both for the language as well as the intrigue of the thought. Feel free to add your own, If you feel so moved… :balloon:

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“…improbability of the real” got a highlight from me too. I have a few more lines underlined from the first section as well, I’ll post here when I’m back at my computer.

My note taking system has really devolved since my formal education ended. On my kindle I highlight beautiful language in one color and unknown/interesting words in another. But my physical books are a mess of post-it’s and whatever writing implement was closest at hand while I was reading.

At least it makes sense to me, right? :wink:

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This was a passage I loved:

Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes, you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering, unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality. All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we’ll have known pain for fifty years. And in the end we’ll die. That’s the condition we’re born on. I’m afraid of life! There are times I— I am very frightened. Any happiness seems trivial. And yet, I wonder if it isn’t all a misunderstanding— this grasping after happiness, this fear of pain. . . . If instead of fearing it and running from it, one could . . . get through it, go beyond it There is something beyond it. It’s the self that suffers, and there’s a place where the self— ceases. I don’t know how to say it. But I believe that the reality— the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort and happiness— that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.”

I’ve struggled my whole life with the idea that in order to maintain “mental health” we must ignore the suffering inherent in our experience. We are temporary beings with a non-negotiable and yet unknown expiration date. It’s the most central fact of our experience, and arguably the cause of the majority of human suffering. And yet, despite the universality of that suffering, our measure of success in life so often seems to be based on who can distract themselves most completely from it - or rather give the illusion of having done so.

This idea - that embracing the futility of trying to prevent suffering can lead to a path through it, to something beyond - was equal parts comforting and fascinating to me.


@tehlorkay, we discussed exactly this passage during our hangout! I expressed doubts about getting through the experience of suffering to some other side. @jcalz216 suggested that Le Guin was “grooming us for Buddhism.” He also shared some of his own feelings about mortality—and I laughed and laughed; not because I was happy about his existential angst, but because I was so relieved to hear somebody say it…on a Google hangout.

Then I felt self-conscious about laughing at a guy talking about his inevitable death. Subsequently, @jzahrt (I believe it was) reminded us of the lines downtext, at the end of the chapter, where Shevek says: “I’m trying to say what I think brotherhood really is. It begins—it begins in shared pain.”

And his interlocuter, the tall girl, responds: “Then where does it end?”

And Shevek replies: “I don’t know. I don’t know yet.”

Which I felt was basically poetry. I mean, what is that question (“Where does it end?”) really about?*

Brotherhood? Sisterhood? Suffering?

Another world?

What “end” means itself, is ambiguous.

Their naked arms and breasts were moonlight. The fine, faint down on Takver’s face made a blurring aureole over her features; her hair and the shadows were black. Shevek touched her silver arm with his silver hand, marveling at the warmth of the touch in that cool light.

“If you can see a thing whole,” he said, “it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives. . . . But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it from the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.”

And then, responding to Takver’s “Ah! your talk, your damned philosophy!”:

Talk? It’s not talk. It’s not reason. It’s hand’s touch. I touch the wholeness, I hold it. Which is moonlight, which is Takver? How shall I fear death? When I hold it, when I hold in my hands the light—"

—from Chapter 6 [HPMC, 190—191]

(Takver had asked, w/r/t Urras, “Why does it look so beautiful?”)

We came, Takver thought, from a great distance to each other. We have always done so. Over great distances, over years, over abysses of chance. It is because he comes from so far away that nothing can separate us. Nothing, no distances, no years, can be greater than the distance that’s already between us, the distance of our sex, the difference of our being, our minds; that gap, that abyss which we bridge with a look, with a touch, with a word, the easiest thing in the world. Look how far away he is, asleep. Look how far away he is, he always is. But he comes back, he comes back, he comes back. . . .

—from Chapter 10 [HPMC, 322]