Katherine Anne Porter

The arts do live continuously, and they live literally by faith; their names and their shapes and their uses and their basic meanings survive unchanged in all that matters through times of interruption, diminishment, neglect; they outlive governments and creeds and the societies, even the very civilization that produced them. They cannot be destroyed altogether because they represent the substance of faith and the only reality. They are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away.

Katherine Anne Porter (15 May 189018 September 1980) was a celebrated American journalist, essayist, short story writer and novelist.

QuotesEdit

Love is a state in which one lives who loves, and whoever loves has given himself away; love then, and not marriage, is belonging.
In spite of all the poetry, all the philosophy to the contrary, we are not really masters of our fate.
  • I don't want any promises, I won't have false hopes, I won't be romantic about myself. I can't live in their world any longer, she told herself, listening to the voices back of her. Let them tell their stories to each other. Let them go on explaining how things happened. I don't care. At least I can know the truth about what happens to me, she assured herself silently, making a promise to herself, in her hopefulness, her ignorance.
  • The road to death is a long march beset with all evils, and the heart fails little by little at each new terror, the bones rebel at each step, the mind sets up its own bitter resistance and to what end? The barriers sink one by one, and no covering of the eyes shuts out the landscape of disaster, nor the sight of crimes committed there.
    • "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" (1939)
  • For myself, and I was not alone, all the conscious and recollected years of my life have been lived to this day under the heavy threat of world catastrophe, and most of the energies of my mind and spirit have been spent in the effort to grasp the meaning of those threats, to trace them to their sources and to understand the logic of this majestic and terrible failure of the life of man in the Western world.
    In the face of such shape and weight of present misfortune, the voice of the individual artist may seem perhaps of no more consequence than the whirring of a cricket in the grass, but the arts do live continuously, and they live literally by faith; their names and their shapes and their uses and their basic meanings survive unchanged in all that matters through times of interruption, diminishment, neglect; they outlive governments and creeds and the societies, even the very civilization that produced them. They cannot be destroyed altogether because they represent the substance of faith and the only reality. They are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away.
    • Flowering Judas, Introduction to Modern Library edition (1940)
  • They had both noticed that a life of dissipation sometimes gave to a face the look of gaunt suffering spirituality that a life of asceticism was supposed to give and quite often did not.
  • Miracles are instantaneous, they cannot be summoned, but come of themeselves, usually at unlikely moments and to those who least expect them.
    • Ship of Fools (1962) Pt. 3
  • The real sin against life is to abuse and destroy beauty, even one's own — even more, one's own, for that has been put in our care and we are responsible for its well-being.
    • "Herr Freytag" in Ship of Fools (1962) Pt. 3
  • I finished the thing; but I think I sprained my soul.
    • On her novel Ship of Fools (1962) in McCall's magazine (August 1965)
  • I'm not afraid of life and I'm not afraid of death: Dying's the bore.
    • Statement at age 80 in The New York Times (3 April 1970)
  • Love without marriage can sometimes be very awkward for all concerned; but marriage without love simply removes that institution from the territory of the humanly admissible, to my mind. Love is a state in which one lives who loves, and whoever loves has given himself away; love then, and not marriage, is belonging. Marriage is a public declaration of a man and a woman that they have formed a secret alliance, with the intention to belong to, and share with each other, a mystical estate; mystical exactly in the sense that the real experience cannot be communicated to others, nor explained even to oneself on rational grounds.
    • "Marriage Is Belonging" in Collected Essays and Occasional Writings (1973)
  • I have no patience with this dreadful idea that whatever you have in you has to come out, that you can't suppress true talent. People can be destroyed; they can be bent, distorted, and completely crippled . . . In spite of all the poetry, all the philosophy to the contrary, we are not really masters of our fate.
    • Quoted in "Contexts" (1982) by Irena Klepfisz [1]

Writers at Work interview (1963)Edit

Writers at Work, Second Series (1963) edited by George Plimpton.
You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being.
  • There seems to be a kind of order in the universe, in the movement of the stars and the turning of the earth and the changing of the seasons, and even in the cycle of human life. But human life itself is almost pure chaos. Everyone takes his stance, asserts his own rights and feelings, mistaking the motives of others, and his own.
  • Human life itself may be almost pure chaos, but the work of the artist — the only thing he's good for — is to take these handfuls of confusion and disparate things, things that seem to be irreconcilable, and put them together in a frame to give them some kind of shape and meaning. Even if it's only his view of a meaning. That's what he's for — to give his view of life.
  • Our being is subject to all the chances of life. There are so many things we are capable of, that we could be or do. The potentialities are so great that we never, any of us, are more than one-fourth fulfilled.
  • You can't write about people out of textbooks, and you can't use jargon. You have to speak clearly and simply and purely in a language that a six-year-old child can understand; and yet have the meanings and the overtones of language, and the implications, that appeal to the highest intelligence.
  • A cultivated style would be like a mask. Everybody knows it's a mask, and sooner or later you must show yourself — or at least, you show yourself as someone who could not afford to show himself, and so created something to hide behind... You do not create a style. You work, and develop yourself; your style is an emanation from your own being.

The Never-Ending Wrong (1977)Edit

Porter's impressions of the Sacco-Vanzetti case
Anarchy had been a word of fear in many countries for a long time, nowhere more so than in this one...
Anarchy had been here all the nineteenth century, with its sinister offspring Nihilism, and it is a simple truth that the human mind can face better the most oppressive government, the most rigid restrictions, than the awful prospect of a lawless, frontierless world.
There is the frightful possibility in all such trials as these that the judgment has already been pronounced and the trial is just a mask for murder.
  • Anarchy had been a word of fear in many countries for a long time, nowhere more so than in this one; nothing in that time, not even the word "Communism," struck such terror, anger, and hatred into the popular mind; and nobody seemed to understand exactly what Anarchy as a political idea meant any more than they understood Communism, which has muddied the waters to the point that it sometimes calls itself Socialism, at other times Democracy, or even in its present condition, the Republic. Fascism, Nazism, new names for very ancient evil forms of government — tyranny and dictatorship — came into fashion almost at the same time with Communism; at least the aims of those two were clear enough; at least their leaders made no attempt to deceive anyone as to their intentions. But Anarchy had been here all the nineteenth century, with its sinister offspring Nihilism, and it is a simple truth that the human mind can face better the most oppressive government, the most rigid restrictions, than the awful prospect of a lawless, frontierless world. Freedom is a dangerous intoxicant and very few people can tolerate it in any quantity; it brings out the old raiding, oppressing, murderous instincts; the rage for revenge, for power, the lust for bloodshed. The longing for freedom takes the form of crushing the enemy — there is always the enemy! — into the earth; and where and who is the enemy if there is no visible establishment to attack, to destroy with blood and fire? Remember all that oratory when freedom is threatened again. Freedom, remember, is not the same as liberty.
  • The trial of Jesus of Nazareth, the trial and rehabilitation of Joan of Arc, any one of the witchcraft trials in Salem during 1691, the Moscow trials of 1937 during which Stalin destroyed all of the founders of the 1924 Soviet Revolution, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial of 1920 through 1927 — there are many trials such as these in which the victim was already condemned to death before the trial took place, and it took place only to cover up the real meaning: the accused was to be put to death. These are trials in which the judge, the counsel, the jury, and the witnesses are the criminals, not the accused. For any believer in capital punishment, the fear of an honest mistake on the part of all concerned is cited as the main argument against the final terrible decision to carry out the death sentence. There is the frightful possibility in all such trials as these that the judgment has already been pronounced and the trial is just a mask for murder.
  • In the reckless phrase of the confirmed joiner in the fight for whatever relief oppressed humanity was fighting for, I had volunteered "to be useful wherever and however I could best serve," and was drafted into a Communist outfit all unknowing; this no doubt because my name was on the list of contributors to funds in aid of Sacco and Vanzetti for several years. Even from Mexico, I sent what bits of money I could, when I could, to whatever group solicited at the moment: I never inquired as to the shades of political belief because that was not what was important to me in that cause, which concerned common humanity.
  • I remember small, slender Mrs. Sacco with her fine copper-colored hair and dark brown, soft, dazed eyes moving from face to face but still smiling uncertainly, surrounded in our offices by women pitying and cuddling her, sympathetic with her as if she were a pretty little girl; they spoke to her as if she were five years old or did not understand — this Italian peasant wife who, for seven long years, had shown moral stamina and emotional stability enough to furnish half a dozen women amply. I was humiliated for them, for their apparent insensibility. But I was mistaken in my anxiety — their wish to help, to show her their concern, was real, their feelings were true and lasting, no matter how awkwardly expressed; their love and tenderness and wish to help were from the heart. All through those last days in Boston, those strangely innocent women enlisted their altar societies, their card clubs their literary round tables, their music circles and their various charities in the campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti. On their rounds, they came now and then to the office of my outfit in their smart thin frocks, stylish hats, and their indefinable air of eager sweetness and light, bringing money they had collected in the endless, wittily devious ways of women's organizations. They would talk among themselves and to her about how they felt, with tears in their eyes, promising to come again soon with more help. They were known as "sob sisters" by the cynics and the hangers-on of the committee I belonged to who took their money and described their activities as "sentimental orgies," of course with sexual overtones, and they jeered at "bourgeois morality." "Morality" was a word along with "charitable" and "humanitarian" and "liberal," all, at one time, in the odor of sanctity but now despoiled and rotting in the gutter where suddenly it seemed they belonged. I found myself on the side of the women; I resented the nasty things said about them by these self-appointed world reformers and I thought again, as I had more than once in Mexico, that yes, the world was a frightening enough place as it was, but think what a hell it would be if such people really got the power to do the things they planned.
  • It was no consolation to say their long ordeal was ended. It was not ended for us and — perhaps I should speak for myself — their memory was already turning to stone in my mind. In my whole life I have never felt such a weight of pure bitterness, helpless anger in utter defeat, outraged love and hope, as hung over us all in that room — or did we breathe it out of ourselves?
  • In the morning when we began straggling out in small parties on our way to the trial, several of us went down in the elevator with three entirely correct old gentlemen looking much alike in their sleekness, pinkness, baldness, glossiness of grooming, such stereotypes as no proletarian novelist of the time would have dared to use as the example of a capitalist monster in his novel. We were pale and tightfaced; our eyelids were swollen; no doubt in spite of hot coffee and cold baths, we looked rumpled, unkempt, disreputable, discredited, vaguely guilty, pretty well frayed out by then. The gentlemen regarded us glossily, then turned to each other. As we descended the many floors in silence, one of them said to the others in a cream-cheese voice, "It is very pleasant to know we may expect things to settle down properly again," and the others nodded with wise, smug, complacent faces.
    To this day, I can feel again my violent desire just to slap his whole slick face all over at once, hard, with the flat of my hand, or better, some kind of washing bat or any useful domestic appliance being applied where it would really make an impression — a butter paddle — something he would feel through that smug layer of too-well-fed fat.
They left a great heritage of love, devotion, faith, and courage — all done with the sure intention that holy Anarchy should be glorified through their sacrifice and that the time would come that no human being should be humiliated or be made abject.
  • I shut my eyes and clenched my hands behind me and saw, in lightning flashes, myself doing ferocious things, like pushing him down an endless flight of stairs, or dropping him without warning into a bottomless well, or stringing him up to a stout beam and leaving him to dangle, or — or other things of the sort; no guns, no knives, no baseball bats, nothing to cause outright bloodshed, just silent, grim, sudden murder by hand was my intention. All this was far beyond my bodily powers of course, and I like to believe beyond my criminal powers too. For I woke when we struck the searing hot light of the August morning as if I had come out of a nightmare, horrified at my own thoughts and feeling as if I had got some incurable wound to my very humanity — as indeed I had. However inflicted, a wound there was, with painful scar tissue, left upon my living self by that appalling event. My conscience stirs as if, in my impulse to do violence to my enemy, I had assisted at his crime.
It was a most marvelous thing to have two splendid, courageous, really noble human beings speaking together, telling the same tale. It was like a duet of two great voices telling a tragic story.
  • They both spoke nobly at the end, they kept faith with their vows for each other. They left a great heritage of love, devotion, faith, and courage — all done with the sure intention that holy Anarchy should be glorified through their sacrifice and that the time would come that no human being should be humiliated or be made abject. Near the end of their ordeal Vanzetti said that if it had not been for "these thing" he might have lived out his life talking at street corners to scorning men. He might have died unmarked, unknown, a failure. "Now, we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man's understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words — our lives — our painsnothing! The taking of our lives — lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler — all! That last moment belongs to us — that agony is our triumph."
    This is not new — all the history of our world is pocked with it. It is very grand and noble in words and grand, noble souls have died for it — it is worth weeping for. But it doesn't work out so well. In order to annihilate the criminal State, they have become criminals. The State goes on without end in one form or another, built securely on the base of destruction. Nietzsche said: "The State is the coldest of all cold monsters," and the revolutions which destroy or weaken at least one monster bring to birth and growth another.
  • Far away and long ago, I read Emma Goldman's story of her life, her first book in which she told the grim, deeply touching narrative of her young life during which she worked in a scrubby sweatshop making corsets by the bundle. At the same time, I was reading Prince Kropotkin's memoirs, his account of the long step he took from his early princely living to his membership in the union of the outcast, the poor, the depressed, and it was a most marvelous thing to have two splendid, courageous, really noble human beings speaking together, telling the same tale. It was like a duet of two great voices telling a tragic story. I believed in both of them at once. The two of them joined together left me no answerable argument; their dream was a grand one but it was exactly that — a dream. They both lived to know this and I learned it from them, but it has not changed my love for them or my lifelong sympathy for the cause to which they devoted their lives — to ameliorate the anguish that human beings inflict on each other — the never-ending wrong, forever incurable.
  • In 1935 in Paris, living in that thin upper surface of comfort and joy and freedom in a limited way, I met this most touching and interesting person, Emma Goldman, sitting at a table reserved for her at the Select, where she could receive her friends and carry on her conversations and sociabilities over an occasional refreshing drink. She was half blind (although she was only sixty-six years old), wore heavy spectacles, a shawl, and carpet slippers. She lived in her past and her devotions, which seemed to her glorious and unarguably right in every purpose. She accepted the failure of that great dream as a matter of course. She finally came to admit sadly that the human race in its weakness demanded government and all government was evil because human nature was basically weak and weakness is evil. She was a wise, sweet old thing, grandmotherly, or like a great-aunt. I said to her, "It's a pity you had to spend your whole life in such unhappiness when you could have had such a nice life in a good government, with a home and children."
    She turned on me and said severely: "What have I just said? There is no such thing as a good government. There never was. There can't be."
    I closed my eyes and watched Nietzsche's skull nodding.

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Last modified on 13 April 2014, at 14:47