This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

10 Feel-Bad Quotes For Your Friday

William Michael Harnett, "Memento Mori To His Favor" (1879The Internet is full of quote lists. All of them, absolutely all, are feel-good quotes. Turn to Google whenever you need an infusion of self-esteem or self-pity, and you will get thousands of cavity-inducing blurbs about the importance of loving yourself and giving yourself more credit for being you. If you’ve read my blog, you know how I feel about that crap. Not only do I despise feel-goodism, I mostly hate quotes too. Many are apocryphal, and many more are torn out of context and applied to situations that the author did not even remotely have in mind when he wrote the words. However, I do have some favorite passages from great literature. And so, today, I am offering a heady espresso to go with the sugary confection that are inspirational quotes. The passages below are unlikely to inspire self-admiration or enthusiasm, but they are guaranteed to inspire thought. I offer them with brief commentaries. Enjoy.

1. The most exquisitely cruel break-up speech ever conceived by man.*

*Gentlemen: mind the boundary between fiction and real life. Never ever ever say this to a woman. I can’t vouch for the safety of your nutsack if you do.

One tires of everything, my angel, it’s the law of nature; there is nothing I can do.

So if I have grown tired of an affair that had consumed me utterly for four infernal months, there is nothing I can do.

If, let’s say, I had as much love as you had virtue (and that’s already being generous), it’s only logical that one had as much staying power as the other. There is nothing I can do.

Indeed, I have been unfaithful to you for some time; but let’s be frank, your overwhelming affection has to some extent driven me to it. There was nothing I could do.

Now, a woman I love madly has insisted that I give you up. I understand the temptation to cry foul; but if nature merely made men steadfast, while giving women the gift of obstinacy, there is nothing I can do.

Trust me, take another lover, as I have done. It’s good advice, very good; if you don’t think it is, there is nothing I can do.

Farewell, my angel, I took you with pleasure, I leave you without regrets; perhaps I’ll see you again. It’s the way of the world. There is nothing I can do.

~ Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Dangerous Liaisons (1782)

2. Say, do you remember the 2004 Oliver Stone comedy Alexander? The one with naked Rosario Dawson pretending to be horse? The one about a blond Colin Farrell doing war to the whole world because he’s awesome? And about the whole world being a goddamn jerk because it wouldn’t just lie back and think of England? Sure you do, it was the funniest movie of the year. Also the longest (though maybe it only felt that way,).

Or the romantic melodrama that came out the same year, called Troy? It featured a very muscular Brad Pitt in a sleeveless blue dress, and a similarly muscular Eric Bana in some other kind of sleeveless dress, with a bonus helping of Orlando Bloom (though his character is a loser and not as pumped up as the other two). I can’t speak for all demographics out there, but if you are a straight girl, or a gay guy, and you were old enough to see that movie, you must remember it well; it was good for at least a year’s worth of masturbatory fantasies.

Or how about the 2007 Zoolander sequel, called 300, about a bunch of male underwear models in leather briefs, led by Gerard Butler in a leather brief, gyrating with swords against a picturesque Mediterranean backdrop? That was sick. I think they were supposed to be Spartans or something, but that must have been a joke, because everyone knows Spartans wore their hair in long braids, and being career warriors, they also had some understanding of human anatomy, specifically that its most vulnerable parts include the abdomen, the crotch and the groin, so they would wear armor over those and think of anyone who went into battle in a thong a bloody idiot. But whatever; it was sexy.

Point being, we romanticize warfare in an almost pornographic fashion. We fawn over warlords, we idealize soldiers, we rationalize inflicting suffering upon huge numbers of people, we make big budget movies glorifying mass murderers, portrayed by criminally handsome actors with chiseled musculature and noble features. Even when people sanctimoniously declare that “war is hell”, it is usually to hypocritically revel in the gore. We associate warlike behavior with honor and elegant masculinity.

So about that …

I hate bragging, but I cannot help saying that I made a very close acquaintance with the colonel of the Cravates; for I drove my bayonet into his body, and finished off a poor little ensign, so young, slender and small, that a blow from my pigtail would have dispatched him, I think, in place of the butt of my musket, with which I clubbed him down. I killed, besides, four more officers and men, and in the poor ensign’s pocket found a purse of fourteen louis-d’or, and a silver box of sugar-plums; of which the former present was very agreeable to me. If people would tell their stories of battles in this simple way, I think the cause of truth would not suffer by it. All I know of this famous fight of Minden (except from books) is told here above. The ensign’s silver bon-bon box and his purse of gold; the livid face of the poor fellow as he fell; the huzzas of the men of my company as I went out under a smart fire and rifled him; their shouts and curses as we came hand in hand with the Frenchmen — these are, in truth, not very dignified recollections, and had best be passed over briefly. […]

Such knaves and ruffians do men in war become! It is well for gentlemen to talk of the age of chivalry; but remember the starving brutes whom they lead — men nursed in poverty, entirely ignorant, made to take a pride in deeds of blood — men who can have no amusement but in drunkenness, debauch and plunder. It is with these shocking instruments that your great warriors and kings have been doing their murderous work in the world; and while, for instance, we are at the present moment admiring the ‘Great Frederich,’ as we call him, and his philosophy, and his liberality, and his military genius, I, who have served him, and been, as it were, behind the scenes of which that great spectacle is composed, can only look at it with horror. What a number of items of human crime, misery, slavery, go to form that sum-total of glory! I can recollect a certain day about three weeks after the battle of Minden, and a farmhouse in which some of us entered; and how the old woman and her daughters served us, trembling, to wine; and how we got drunk over the wine, and the house was in a flame, presently; and woe betide the wretched fellow afterwards who came home to look for his house and his children!

~William Makepeace Thackeray, The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844)

3. Where do you see yourself in ten years? 1913 was a good year. (The passage below does not appear in any English language editions, having been censored until the very end of the Soviet rule. So, it’s my own translation.)

That same night, Ippolit Matveevich, still fragrant with perfume, was digesting the feast on the balcony of his mansion. He was only thirty-eight. His body was clean, well-nourished and healthy. All his teeth were in place. An Armenian joke stirred softly inside his head, like a fetus in its mother’s womb. Life was sweet. He had vanquished his mother-in-law, money was plentiful, and another trip abroad was in the works for next year.

But what Ippolit Matveevich did not know was that a year hence, in May, his wife would die, and in July, a war would break out with Germany. He had expected to become the leader of his gubernya’s nobles by fifty, unaware that in 1918, he would be chased from his own house and, accustomed as he was to comfortable and carefree idleness, forced to flee the ruined Stargorod on a freight train.

Sitting on his balcony, Ippolit Matveechich pictured in his mind the rippling sea at Ostend, the dark roofs of Paris, the thick varnish and shiny copper buttons of first-class rail cars, but he could not picture (and even if he could, he would not understand) bread lines, a frozen bed, an oil lamp, typhoid delirium and the sign “Finish your business and leave” in the registrar’s office of the provincial town of N.

He also did not know yet, lounging on the balcony, that fourteen years hence, still in his prime, he would return to Stargorod and walk once more through these very doors, above which he was now ensconced, walk through them as a stranger, to hunt for the treasure his mother-in-law had so foolishly hidden in the cushion of a dining chair, upon which he was now seated so serenely, looking up at the flaming Imperial seal in the sky and dreaming of a beautiful life.

~Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, The Twelve Chairs (1928)

4. No one likes a sap.

Be cautious then, young ladies; be wary how you engage. Be shy of loving frankly; never tell all you feel, or (a better way still), feel very little. See the consequences of being prematurely honest and confiding, and mistrust yourselves and everybody. Get yourselves married as they do in France, where the lawyers are the bridesmaids and confidants. At any rate, never have any feelings which may make you uncomfortable, or make any promises which you cannot at any required moment command and withdraw. That is the way to get on, and be respected, and have a virtuous character in Vanity Fair.

~William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848)

5. Evil is indestructible.

Hearing the jubilant cries rising through the town, Rieux realized that such joy was always imperiled. For he knew what this enraptured crowd did not, and what one could learn from books, that the plague bacillus never dies nor disappears, that it may lie dormant for decades in drawers and linens, that it waits patiently in bedrooms, in caves, in trunks, in handkerchiefs and in papers, and that, perhaps, the day will come when, for the bane and edification of men, the plague will awaken its rats and send them forth to die in a happy city.

~Albert Camus, The Plague (1947)

6. Be good to your slaves, they are cattle too.

I regard [Cato the Elder’s] treatment of his slaves like beasts of burden, using them to the uttermost, and then, when they were old, driving them off and selling them, as the mark of a very mean nature, which recognizes no tie between man and man but that of necessity. And yet we know that kindness has a wider scope than justice. Law and justice we naturally apply to men alone; but when it comes to beneficence and charity, these often flow in streams from the gentle heart, like water from a copious spring, even down to dumb beasts. A kindly man will take good care of his horses even when they are worn out with age, and of his dogs, too, not only in their puppyhood, but when their old age needs nursing. […]

We should not treat living creatures like shoes or pots and pans, casting them aside when they are bruised and worn out with service, but, if for no other reason, for the sake of practice in kindness to our fellow men, we should accustom ourselves to mildness and gentleness in our dealings with other creatures. I certainly would not sell even an ox that had worked for me, just because he was old, much less an elderly man, removing him from his habitual place and customary life, as it were from his native land, for a paltry price, useless as he is to those who sell him as he will be to those who buy him. But Cato, exulting as it were in such things, says that he left in Spain even the horse which had carried him through his consular campaign, that he might not tax the city with the costs of its transportation.

~Plutarch, Life of Cato the Elder (2nd century AD)

7. Teaching boys to be boys in the good old days

Mr. Sergeant Toffy’s lady felt no particular gratitude when, with a twist of his elbow, [Georgy] tilted a glass of port-wine over her yellow satin and laughed at the disaster; nor was she better pleased, although old Osborne was highly delighted, when Georgy “whopped” her third boy (a young gentleman a year older than Georgy, and by chance home for the holidays from Dr. Tickleaus’ at Ealing School) in Russell Square. George’s grandfather gave the boy a couple of sovereigns for that feat and promised to reward him further for every boy above his own size and age whom he whopped in a similar manner. It is difficult to say what good the old man saw in these combats; he had a vague notion that quarrelling made boys hardy, and that tyranny was a useful accomplishment for them to learn. English youth have been so educated time out of mind, and we have hundreds of thousands of apologists and admirers of injustice, misery and brutality, as perpetrated among children.

~William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848)

8. I’m a serial killer, dear. But only for three days out of a week.

Madam! I am a werewolf.
I go deep in the forest naked as a beast
And live on prey and roots.

~Marie de France, Lais (12th century)

(As a student, I read that in the original Old Norman French. It occurred to me then that “Dame! Suis bisclavret” might just be the best line in all of French literature.)

9. God will roast their stomachs in hell.

The gaunt elderly ladies brought a whole sack of leaflets with two prayers, composed by the Budapest Archbishop Géza from Szatmár-Budafalus. The prayers were written in German and Hungarian and contained the most horrifying maledictions directed at the enemy. The prayers were suffused with such passion, the only thing missing was the strong Hungarian expression “Baszom a Kristusmarját”(*).

In the opinion of the venerable Archbishop, the loving God was to julienne the Russians, Englishmen, Serbians, Frenchmen and the Japanese, turn them into noodles and pepper goulash. The loving God was to bathe in the blood of the adversary and exterminate all the enemies as cruel Herod had done to the innocents. The Most Holy Archbishop of Budapest included in his prayers, for instance, such lovely sentiments as: “May the Lord bless your bayonets so that they plunge deep into the bellies of our enemies. May the most just Lord guide our artillery fire to the enemy’s headquarters. Lord most merciful, make the enemy drown in their own blood from the wounds that our men inflict on them.” Once again, it should be noted that the prayers were missing only a “Baszom a Kristusmarját.”

(*)I could never find an exact translation of that phrase, and I don’t know any Hungarian speakers closely enough to ask what that means, but it’s definitely an f-bomb.

~Jaroslav Hasek, The Good Soldier Svejk (1921)

10. An armed society is a polite society. But a violent one.

It was the end of June, and our [duel] was to take place at seven o’clock the next day on the outskirts of the town—and then something happened that in very truth was the turning-point of my life. In the evening, returning home in a savage and brutal humor, I flew into a rage with my orderly [serf] Afanasy, and gave him two blows in the face with all my might, so that it was covered with blood. He had not long been in my service and I had struck him before, but never with such ferocious cruelty. And, believe me, though it’s forty years ago, I recall it now with shame and pain. I went to bed and slept for about three hours; when I waked up the day was breaking. I got up—I did not want to sleep any more—I went to the window—opened it, it looked out upon the garden; I saw the sun rising; it was warm and beautiful, the birds were singing.

“What’s the meaning of it?” I thought. “I feel in my heart as it were something vile and shameful. Is it because I am going to shed blood? No,” I thought, “I feel it’s not that. Can it be that I am afraid of death, afraid of being killed? No, that’s not it, that’s not it at all.”… And all at once I knew what it was: it was because I had beaten Afanasy the evening before! It all rose before my mind, it all was as it were repeated over again; he stood before me and I was beating him straight on the face and he was holding his arms stiffly down, his head erect, his eyes fixed upon me as though on parade. He staggered at every blow and did not even dare to raise his hands to protect himself. That is what a man has been brought to, and that was a man beating a fellow creature! What a crime! It was as though a sharp dagger had pierced me right through. I stood as if I were struck dumb, while the sun was shining, the leaves were rejoicing and the birds were trilling the praise of God…. I hid my face in my hands, fell on my bed and broke into a storm of tears. And then I remembered my brother Markel and what he said on his death-bed to his servants: “My dear ones, why do you wait on me, why do you love me, am I worth your waiting on me?”

“Yes, am I worth it?” flashed through my mind. “After all what am I worth, that another man, a fellow creature, made in the likeness and image of God, should serve me?” For the first time in my life this question forced itself upon me. He had said, “Mother, my little heart, in truth we are each responsible to all for all, it’s only that men don’t know this. If they knew it, the world would be a paradise at once.”

~Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Happy Friday.


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