Quotes to Write By: Regarding John Berger, Jonathan Safran Foer, Michiko Kakutani and (mostly) Mystery

by tjbeitelman

I am a teacher who talks about stories (among other things) most of the day.

Which is to say: I’m lucky. I like to talk about stories.

Today I talked about Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, in which the protagonist, a nine-year-old boy named Oskar, struggles to cope with his father’s death in the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11.

In so doing, we talked a little bit about Michiko Kakutani’s famously “mean” review of said novel (it’s not that mean, really: she likes Foer, she doesn’t like his book all that much, except for some parts that she liked a lot) in the New York Times. Cloying, she called it. Contrived.

It’s a polarizing book but that’s not really what’s important. (For the record: I like it. It ages well. But I like contrivance and have a high threshold for self-indulgence.)

Mostly I’m (still, always) just thinking about mystery, and this novel is a catalyst for that.

There’s a book, a sacred text. For me. It’s called Bento’s Sketchbook (How Does the Impulse to Draw Something Begin?) by John Berger. Here is a particularly sacred passage:

There are two categories of storytelling. Those that treat of the invisible and the hidden, and those that expose and offer the revealed. What I call — in my own special and physical sense of the terms — the introverted category and the extroverted one. Which of the two is likely to be more adapted to, more trenchant about what is happening in the world today? I believe the first.

Because its stories remain unfinished. Because they involve sharing. Because in their telling a body refers as much to a body of people as to an individual. Because for them mystery is not something to be solved but to be carried. Because, although they may deal with sudden violence or loss or anger, they are long-sighted. And, above all, because their protagonists are not performers but survivors.

For some reason, this passage either gives me goosebumps or brings tears to my eyes (sometimes both) whenever I read it.

Carry the mystery. That’s what Oskar does in Foer’s book. That’s what we do, whoever “we” are exactly.

Maybe we are writers. Painters. Poets. Presidents. (Ahem.)


Maybe we’re lovers. Survivors.

Which is to say: maybe we’re just upright hominids with opposable thumbs.

What makes us most human is we carry the mystery.