Reassurance

“At the meeting on Nantucket, Esvelt assured residents that he and his team fully understood the implications of manipulating the basic elements of life.”

Michael Specter, The New Yorker, “Rewriting the Code of Life.”

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Leaving Pogorelka

“The last blows of fate had not only humbled her but had also thrown a light upon certain aspects of her mental horizon on which her mind had apparently never dwelt before. She understood now that human beings had certain strivings which may lie dormant for a long time but which, once awakened, irresistibly drew one towards the blessed ray of light that one’s eyes have long been watching for amidst the hopeless darkness of the present. Having once recognized the legitimacy of such a striving she could no longer oppose it. True, she did try to dissuade the girls, but she did it feebly, halfheartedly; she was anxious about their future, especially as she herself had no connections in so-called society, but at the same time she felt it was right and inevitable that they should part. What would become of them? The question haunted her every moment; but then neither question nor even more alarming ones can hold back those who long for freedom. And the girls could talk of nothing but escaping from Pogorelka. And so after hesitating a little and putting off the day of departure out of consideration for their grandmother, they went away.”

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, The Golovlyovs

Havel’s Entrance

“Across the aisle, about four rows nearer the camera and the pulpit, I noticed one of New York’s wealthier literary agents in conversation with an author noted for his patriotic fictions on the theme of America the Invincible and America the Good. They looked as sleek and soft as otters, both of them expensively manicured and glittering with gold jewelry, and it occurred to me that neither would have had much trouble serving the Communist ancien rĂ©gime in Prague. Nor, if the times demanded a change of ideology and a rearrangement of political furniture, would they find it difficult to serve any other regime (fascist or monarchist or social democratic) that generously rewarded them for their hired loyalty and praise. I was estimating the likely speed of their change of costume when Havel entered the cathedral through a side door, forty-five minutes late, invisible in a crowd of friends, dignitaries, and Secret Service agents. He was so far away that I was aware only of blurred movement, as if I were watching a wind passing through distant grass. Although almost nobody else in the cathedral could see him any better than I, the entire congregation, maybe as many as one thousand people, instinctively rose and applauded.”

Lewis H. Lapham, The Wish for Kings: Democracy at Bay

Bitter Water

“Here he is, making his way to Sardis with his army. He spots a plane-tree along the road which was so beautiful that he presented it with golden decorations and appointed one of the Immortals as guardian to look after it. He is still under the spell of the tree’s charms when news reaches him that a great storm in the straits of the Hellespont has destroyed the bridges which he had ordered built so that his army could cross from Asia into Europe in its advance on Greece. Upon hearing this, Xerxes flew into a rage. He ordered his men to give the Hellespont three hundred lashes and to sink a pair of shackles into the sea. I once heard that he also dispatched men to brand the Hellespont as well. Be that as it may, he did tell the men he had thrashing the sea to revile it in terms you would never hear from a Greek. ‘Bitter water,’ they said, ‘this is your punishment for wronging your master when he did no wrong to you. King Xerxes will cross you, with or without your consent. People are right not to sacrifice to a muddy, brackish stream like you!’ So the sea was punished at his orders, and he had the supervisors of the bridging of the Hellespont beheaded.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Travels with Herodotus

 

Occupational Hazard

” ‘They have read your novel,’ began Woland, turning to the Master, ‘and they said only one thing, that, unfortunately, it is not finished. So I wanted to show you your hero. He has been sitting here for about two thousand years, sleeping, but, when the moon is full, he is tormented, as you see, by insomnia. And it torments not only him, but his faithful guardian, the dog. If it is true that cowardice is the most grave vice, then the dog, at least, is not guilty of it. The only thing that brave creature ever feared was thunderstorms. But what can be done, the one who loves must share the fate of the one he loves.

‘What is he saying?’ asked Margarita, and her utterly tranquil face was covered by a veil of compassion.

‘He says,’ Woland’s voice rang out, ‘the same thing over and over. That the moon gives him no peace and that he has a bad job. That is what he always says when he cannot sleep, and when he does sleep, he always sees the same thing – a path of moonlight, and he wants to walk on that path, and talk with the prisoner Ha-Notsri, because, as he keeps maintaining, he did not finish what he wanted to say long ago, on the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan. But, alas, for some reason, he never does manage to walk on the path, and no one comes to see him. So there is nothing for him to do except talk to himself. Some variety is necessary, however, so when he talks about the moon, he frequently adds that he hates his immortality and unprecedented fame more than anything in the world. He maintains that he would gladly change places with the ragged wanderer, Levi Matvei.”

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita

Gallows

“An old man driving an empty sleigh sluggishly yielded the road to them beneath the very windows of the cottage. Then Rybak suddenly had a real thought, he could leap into the sleigh, seize the reins and whip up the horse – he might just get away. But the old man! As he held back his young impatient horse, he cast a glance at the man in charge and at the whole column of politsai, and his eyes showed so deep a hatred for them that Rybak understood – no, he could never get away with it! But who would be willing to help him? Then, thunderstruck, he was swamped by the unexpected realization that there was no way of getting out of it. After this execution there was nowhere to go. There was no way of escape from the column he had joined. The shattering clarity of this revelation jolted him so much that he stumbled, fell out of step and couldn’t pick up the rhythm again.

‘What’s up with you?’ his neighbor asked in a scornful bass voice.

‘Nothing!’

‘You’re not used to it then? You’ll learn.'”

Vasily Bykov, The Ordeal