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Category: Words

Quotes from Testaments Betrayed

Try to reconstruct a dialogue from your own life, the dialogue of a quarrel or a dialogue of love. The most precious, the most important situations are utterly gone. Their abstract sense remains (I took this point of view, he took that one, I was aggressive, he was defensive), perhaps a detail or two, but the acousticovisual concreteness of the situation in all its continuity is lost.

And not only is it lost but we do not even wonder at this loss. We are resigned to losing the concreteness of the present. We immediately transform the present moment into its abstraction. We need only recount an episode we experienced a few hours ago: the dialogue contracts to a brief summary, the setting to a few general features. This applies to even the strongest memories, which affect the mind deeply, like a trauma: we are so dazzled by their potency that we don’t realize how schematic and meager their content is.

When we study, discuss, analyze a reality, we analyze it as it appears in our mind, in our memory. We know reality only in the past tense. We do not know it as it is in the present, in the moment when it’s happening, when it is. The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting.

We can assiduously keep a diary and note every event. Rereading the entries one day, we will see that they cannot evoke a single concrete image. And still worse: that the imagination is unable to help our memory along and reconstruct what has been forgotten. The present – the concreteness of the present – as a phenomenon to consider, as a structure, is for us an unknown planet; so we can neither hold on to it in our memory nor reconstruct it through imagination. We die without knowing what have lived.

—- Testaments Betrayed: An Essay in Nine Parts, Milan Kundera


Maxims, La Rochefoucald

We have no more say in the duration of our passions than in that of our lives.

Our self-esteem is more inclined to resent criticism of our tastes than of our opinions.

The steadfastness of the wise is but the art of keeping their agitation locked in their hearts.

Greater virtues are needed to bear good fortune than bad.

We have more strength than will-power, and when we imagine things are impossible we are trying to make excuses to ourselves.

If we had no faults we should not find so much enjoyment in seeing faults in others.

Pride plays a greater part than kindness in the reprimands we address to wrongdoers; we reprove them not so much to reform them as to make them believe that we are free from their faults.

People too much taken up with little things usually become incapable of big ones.

We are never as fortunate or as unfortunate as we suppose.

People with a high opinion of their own merit make it a point of honour to be unhappy so as to convince others as well as themselves that they are worthy victims of the buffetings of fate.

The scorn for riches displayed by the philosophers was a secret desire to recompense their own merit for the injustice of Fortune by scorning those very benefits she had denied them; it was a private way of remaining unsullied by poverty, a devious path towards the high respect they could not command by wealth.

Sincerity is openness of heart. It is found in very few, and what is usually seen is subtle dissimulation designed to draw the confidence of others.

There are few people who, when their love for each other is dead, are not ashamed of that love.

Reconciliation with our enemies is nothing more than the desire to improve our position, war-weariness, or fear of some unlucky turn of events.

What men have called friendship is merely association, respect for each other’s interests, and exchange of good offices, in fact nothing more than a business arrangement from which self-love is always out to draw some profit.

Our self-esteem magnifies or minimises the good qualities of our friends according to how pleased we are with them, and we measure their worth by the way they get on with us.

Old people are fond of giving good advice; it consoles them for no longer being capable of setting a bad example.

A man’s ingratitude may be less reprehensible than the motives of his benefactor.

Nothing is less sincere that the way people ask and give advice. The asker appears to have deferential respect for his friend’s sentiments, although his sole object is to get his own approved and transfer responsibility for his conduct; whereas the giver repays with tireless and disinterested energy that confidence that has been placed in him, although most often the advice he gives is calculated to further his own interests or reputation alone.

We often do good so that we can do evil with impunity.

When we resist passions it is more on account of their weakness than our strength.

One of the reasons why so few people are to be found who seem sensible and pleasant in conversation is that almost everybody is thinking about what he wants to say himself rather than answering clearly what is being said to him. The more clever and polite think it enough simply to put on an attentive expression, while all the time you can see in their eyes and train of thought that they are far removed from what you are saying and anxious to get back to what they want to say. They ought, on the contrary, to reflect that such keenness to please oneself is a bad way of pleasing or persuading others, and that to listen well and answer to the point is one of the most perfect qualities one can have in conversation.

The glory of great men must always be measured against the means they have used to acquire it.

Our real worth earns the respect of knowledgeable people, luck that of the public.

We are held to our duty by laziness and timidity, but often our virtue gets all the credit.

Repentance is not so much regret for the evil we have done as fear of the evil that may befall us as a result.

We own up to our failings so that our honesty may repair the damage those failings do us in other men’s eyes.

We do not despise all those with vices, but we do despise all those without a single virtue.

Our misdeeds are easily forgotten when they are known only to ourselves.

Virtue would not go so far without vanity to bear it company.

Gratitude is like commercial good faith; it keeps trade going, and we pay up, not because it is right to settle our account but so that people will be more willing to extend us credit.

The deficit in the amount of gratitude we expect for kindnesses done is due to the pride of both giver and receiver, for they fail to agree upon the value of the kindness.

Over-eagerness to repay a debt is in itself a kind of ingratitude.

Afflictions give rise to various kinds of hypocrisy: in one, pretending to weep over the loss of someone dear to us we really weep for ourselves, since we miss that person’s good opinion of us or deplore some curtailment of our wealth, pleasure, or position. The dead, therefore, are honoured by tears shed for the living alone. I call this a kind of hypocrisy because in afflictions of this sort we deceive ourselves. There is another hypocrisy, less innocent because aimed at the world at large: the affliction of certain persons who aspire to the glory of a beautiful, immortal sorrow. Time, the universal destroyer, has taken away the grief they really felt, but still they obstinately go on weeping, wailing, and sighing; they are acting a mournful part and striving to make all their actions prove that their distress will only end with their lives. This miserable and tiresome vanity is usually found in ambitious women, for as their sex precludes them from all the roads to glory they seek celebrity by a display of inconsolable affliction. There is yet another kind of tears that rise from shallow springs and flow or dry up at will: people shed them so as to have a reputation for being tender-hearted, so as to be pitied or wept over, or, finally, to avoid the disgrace of not weeping.

Those who obstinately oppose the most widely-held opinions more often do so because of pride than lack of intelligence. They find the best places in the right set already taken, and they do not want back seats.

In every walk of life each man puts on a personality and outward appearance so as to look what he wants to be thought: in fact you might say that society is entirely made up of assumed personalities.

Civility is a desire to be repaid with civility, and also to be considered well bred.

Pity is often feeling our own sufferings in those of others, a shrewd precaution against misfortunes that may befall us. We give help to others so that they have to do the same for us on similar occasions, and these kindnesses we do them are, to put it plainly, gifts we bestow on ourselves in advance.

Readiness to believe the worst without adequate examination comes from pride and laziness: we want to find culprits but cannot be bothered to investigate the crimes.

Absence lessens moderate passions and intensifies great ones, as the wind blows out a candle but fans up a fire.

We own up to minor failings, but only so as to convince others that we have no major ones.

Commonplace minds usually condemn whatever is beyond their powers.

Most friends give one a distaste for friendship, and most of the pious a distaste for piety.

Decorum is the least important of all laws, but the best observed.

The very pride that makes us condemn failings from which we think we are exempt leads us to despise good qualities we do not possess.

Those who have known great passions remain all through their lives both glad and sorry they have recovered.

Moderation in times of good fortune is merely dread of the humiliating aftermath of excess, or fear of losing what one has.

Each one of us finds in others the very faults other finds in us.

When you cannot find your peace in yourself it is useless to look for it elsewhere.

As man is never free to love or cease loving, a lover has no right to complain of his mistress’s inconstancy, nor she of his fickleness.

We do not always regret the loss of our friends because of their worth, but because of our own needs and the flattering opinion they had of us.



Borges on Writing and Blindness

I had always imagined Paradise as a kind of library.

I too, if I may mention myself, have always known that my destiny was, above all, a literary destiny — that bad things and some good things would happen to me, but that, in the long run, all of it would be converted into words. Particularly the bad things, since happiness does not need to be transformed: happiness is its own end.

I have said that blindness is a way of life, a way of life that is not entirely unfortunate. Let us recall those lines of the greatest Spanish poet, Fray Luis de León:

Vivir quiero conmigo,
gozar quiero del bien que debo al cielo,
a solas sin testigo,
libre de amor, de celo,
de odio, de esperanza, de recelo.

[I want to live with myself,/ I want to enjoy the good that I owe to heaven,/ alone, without witnesses,/ free of love, of jealousy,/ of hate, of hope, of fear.]

Edgar Allan Poe knew this stanza by heart.

A writer lives. The task of being a poet is not completed at a fixed schedule. No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six. Whoever is a poet is always one, and continually assaulted by poetry. I suppose a painter feels that colors and shapes are besieging him. Or the musician feels that the strange world of sounds — the strangest world of art — is always seeking him out, that there are melodies and dissonances looking for him. For the task of an artist, blindness is not a total misfortune. It may be an instrument. Fray Luis de León dedicated one of his most beautiful odes to Francisco Salinas, a blind musician.

A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument; everything has been given for an end. This is even stronger in the case of an artist. Everything that happens, including humiliations, embarrassments, misfortunes, all has been given like clay, like material for one’s art. One must accept it. For this reason I speak in a poem of the ancient food of heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord. Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so.

I want to end with a line of Goethe: ‘Alles Nahe werde fern,’ everything near becomes far. Goethe was referring to the evening twilight. Everything becomes far. It is true. At nightfall, the things closest to us seem to move away from our eyes. So the visible world has moved away from my eyes, perhaps forever.

Goethe could be referring not only to twilight but to life. All things go off, leaving us. Old age is probably the supreme solitude — except that the supreme solitude is death. And ‘everything near becomes far’ also refers to the slow process of blindness, of which I hoped to show speaking tonight, that it is not a complete misfortune. It is one more instrument among the many — all of them so strange – that fate or chance provide.


Jorge Luis Borges, “Blindness” in The Perpetual Race of Achilles and the Tortoise (Penguin Great Ideas 98)